Storytelling with Music: Phil Chiu to Perform 

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Philip Chiu. Photo by Antoine Saito.


Canadian pianist Phil Chiu will open the 23rd season of Capital City Concerts on Saturday evening, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m. at Montpelier’s Unitarian Church. His theme for the concert program is “Piano Fables.”

At 38, Chiu is widely acknowledged as one of Canada’s leading pianists and his flair for performance has been variously described as “brilliant, poetic, and evocative.”

In a wonderfully frank and revealing phone conversation with Chiu just days before the upcoming concert, he talked about his overseas roots, his childhood and growing up, and also his musical career and the Sept. 24 concert program.

About his overseas roots, Chiu talked about immigrating as a three-year-old boy with his family from Hong Kong, where he was born, to Canada, his adopted home and country. Chiu has vivid memories of his father, who loved music. Said Chiu, “He always played guitar and always sang. He would send me scores and I could read them. We would go on a trip and he would play guitar and sing.”

Chiu went on to reflect about his training to become a solo pianist. As he explained, “In the classical world at the time, anyone who was taking piano lessons and who didn’t focus on solo music “was almost a second-class citizen.” If your heart was set on becoming a serious classical pianist, you had to prepare for the crucial piano competitions. At these competitions you might outperform your peers. Or you might get lucky. Or as Chiu put it, “Maybe something will happen for you and that was the big hope.”

As time passed, it seemed almost inevitable that Chiu would focus on solo piano and prepare for the competitions. But then something as implacable as necessity intervened and Chiu decided to consider a different path. So Chiu said candidly, “I stumbled into collaborative work because I needed a job.” And soon enough Chiu was working with other musicians, including pianists like himself, also violinists, cellists, flutists, brass players, and the like. And his days were filling up with meetings, rehearsals, performances, travel and touring — and even recording.

“It’s joyful, isn’t it,” Chiu exclaimed on the phone about his collaborative work and the opportunity it provided to make music with others in the much bigger world that had opened up for him. And he was finding that working with others and performing music that was new to him was deepening his understanding of music. “If you are just working with solo piano alone,” he said, “you are limiting what you can produce artistically.”

And to make that point again — Chiu referred to Beethoven and said, “Beethoven wrote a large number of works for the piano. But to understand Beethoven, you must embrace all the music he wrote. There’s so much to learn from music that is not just written for the solo piano.”

In September 2015, Chiu was presented with the first-ever (inaugural) Canadian Prix Goyer, named for the late Jean-Pierre Goyer, a former member of Parliament and a champion of the arts. As it was conceived, the Prix Goyer was intended to jump-start the career of a promising “emerging musician” from Canada — and a musician — in the words of an official Prix Goyer bulletin — “whose artistic profile included collaborative work with other musicians.”

When Chiu was notified that he had won the Prix Goyer, the news came to him as a complete surprise.

“It was so crazy and incomprehensible.” That was his first reaction. His second reaction was this, “And there were so many others who deserved it.” There were other emotions about the prize as well — such as the added media attention and a generous cash award of $125,000. All-told, for Chiu and his career in music, the prize was a big step forward.

As we continued to talk by phone, Chiu discussed his own deeply held belief about the critical conjunction between storytelling and music. “Everything is based on stories,” he said. And as a musician, he added, “One of my first responsibilities is to be a storyteller.”

The Sept. 24 concert and its theme of “Piano Fables” presents a succession of storytelling compositions. There’s the “Two Legend” miracle-inspired piano solo by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt; the “Mother Goose Suite,” a nursery-rhyme-based, lyrical piano solo by French composer Maurice Ravel, and a Franz Schubert “Impromptu, Opus 90” — and each selection is a story told through music.

A clear program highlight is the newly composed piano solo by the much-honored Odawa First Nation (Canadian) composer Barbara Assiginaak — a classically trained musician with strong cultural roots who continues to be active internationally as a composer and performer with leading orchestras and ensembles in Canada, the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Here’s how Phil Chiu came to commission a new piece for solo piano from Barbara Assiginaak. Said Chiu, “I heard one of her pieces being played. I immediately fell in love with her unique sound and evocative, atmospheric writing. Hearing her music inspired Chiu to invite Assiginaak to compose a new piece for solo piano. It’s a piece that celebrates the wonder, quickness, and visual delight of insects, or as Chiu said, “It’s a very beautiful piece of music about a tiny world we hardly know enough about.”

When Chiu was asked if his concert performance on Sept. 24 would be the first-ever performance of “An Abundance of Insects” in the United States, his answer was immediate: “Absolutely,” he said with a flourish — “An American premiere.”

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