Pianist Daniel Hsu has met with more than a fair share of success in his comparatively young career. From his launching pad as a student of Gary Graffman’s at the Curtis Institute, the 21-year-old California native has already appeared as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, won first prize at the 2015 Concert Artists Guild Competition, and the bronze medal at the 15th Van Cliburn Competition, and just last year made his Carnegie Hall debut.
As for how he’s developed his deeply refined aesthetics, he’ll be the first to say that everyone takes a different route, but that curiosity is the key.
“I’ll go on stage with the belief that ‘This is how I want the piece to sound,’” he says, “but I’ll come off thinking ‘Hunh, these ideas worked well but what if I try it like this.’ We’ve had these pieces for hundreds of years, and thousands of pianists have touched them over time, but you never listen to a piece and think ‘That’s it.’ There’s no one way. A piece is always evolving, always changing. As an artist, if you think ‘That’s it, I’m done,’ you’re limiting yourself to one particular way.”
Hsu will be bringing his artistry to Soka University on December 2, performing a recital of Beethoven, Chopin, and Schumann. Of the selections he’s prepared, he thinks of the Schumann Fantasy in C Major as the recital’s centerpiece.
“This piece in particular I’ve wanted to play for two or three years,” he says, “and nothing’s ever been lined up for me to present it until now. I’m excited I’m finally able to perform he work in public. I love the piece for so many reasons. For me, it’s one of the pieces that represents Schumann’s core values; it shows so clearly his impulsive, passionate, exterior side along with moments of intense reflection and beauty.”
Also on the program: Schumann’s Arebeske in C Major (“It’s the opus right after the fantasy, in same key, and I really love the pairing”), two works by Chopin—the Grand Polonaise and the Fantaisie in F major—and Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31.
It’s an ambitious program forged out of a circuitous process.
“Before I decide to play something, usually there’s a lot of creeping around the piece,” he says. “I’ll be listening to a recital or recording, and hear a piece and think ‘Wow, I really want to play that!’ Or I’ll get a suggestion from a friend. I do a lot of listening and thinking and by the time I sit down, I have a general idea or gist. But then, I cut loose all of the recordings and focus on my own reading, I begin playing for friends, teachers, mentors, and that’s how I develop my own way of thinking around a piece.”
Interestingly, Hsu seems to learn the most about a work when he’s actually on stage playing.
“Once I’m performing it, I get the most insight into a work,” he says. “When I perform I like to believe in the moment, to create a new and different experience each time. Part of the beauty of performing is that every performance is different, every situation is different, how the audience is feeling, me, the piano, the space, all of these things affect the performance and the music that comes out. I learn about my reading and what I think, what the composer wants, and then by marrying them all together I get a better understanding of the piece.”
That said, the process comes with its own unique frustrations and challenges. Finding a way to recreate a great work in a way that satisfies both performer and listener is the perpetual challenge; a challenge Hsu is very familiar with.
“My teacher was Gary Graffman and I used to complain to him all the time,” he says. ‘Am I ever going to play in a way when I’m happy with the performance?’ He told me ‘Daniel, how many times have you played this in concert?’ I’d say ‘This is the third or fourth time.’ He looked at me and laughed, and said ‘Come and talk to me when you reach 50 or 100. Because that’s when you understand and feel comfortable with a piece, that’s when you can really communicate the ideas and execution.’ Maybe he was trying to make me feel better. But there’s a lot of truth in the statement.”
Having been an extremely active performer since his student days, he’s happier with his performances these days. Though it wouldn’t occur to him while he’s performing. In process, on stage, he’s enveloped in the work.
“A lot of people wonder what performers think,” he says. “I focus on the music and what I’m trying to say with this particular performance, and I’m rarely able to jump out while I’m performing. It’s just ‘This is how it’s coming out.’ Afterward, I reflect and think I said what I wanted to say. Usually, I’m happy about that.”
Peter Lefevre us a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at [email protected]