Daniel Hsu: Romancing the Piano

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When Van Cliburn was 23, he became the improbable winner of the Tchaikovsky piano competition in Moscow at the height of the Cold War (demonstrating that the judges understood how music transcends politics and can create international “harmony”).  He then founded the every-four-year Van Cliburn International Piano Competition to boost young pianists under 30.

Big Island’s Kahilu Theater is included in the Cliburn winner’s circuit, and we have had the good fortune to hear a number of them: Vadym Kholodenko and Sean Chen from the 2013 competition, and Kenny Broberg and now Daniel Hsu from 2017. Each pianist is unique, because winners are chosen not just for their technical skills or for their ability to imitate well-known versions of classics, but for their ability to plumb the pieces for meanings that others have not yet discovered, to perform in ways that share their new insights with listeners.

Daniel Hsu excels at finding romance.  While his program choices show his love for works from the Romantic period, he began with JS Bach.  He played the Prelude and Fugue in C-sharp Major with a light and delicate touch, each note clearly rendered but not “detache” (or detached) as in many Baroque works, giving it a sweet romantic aura not typically associated with Bach’s rational composition.

Then on to the true Romantics. Etude-tableau in E-flat Minor by Rachmaninov, as an “etude,” or study, was written for pianists to practice technical skills; it is agitated to the max, and Hsu established his technical credentials with honors. Next came Tchaikovsky’s Dumka, (a “dumka” is based in Slavic folk forms, which turn on a dime between melancholy and exuberant, while Western European folk songs are eitherhappy or sad). As Hsu wound the dumka down to a slow soft finish pulling out the melody like a silken string, it suddenly erupted into a super loud staccato with the weight of his arms lending to the volume. Surprise!

Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor completed the first half.  As is common in Chopin, the opening movements have melodic lines of great beauty which rise into heart-rending heights of emotion – Hsu can squeeze enormous pathos out of a simple phrase – then these melodies are interrupted by sections of rapid chromatic chord progressions, and then these find resolution as they sink back into melodic lines. It’s almost as if the emotions are too much for anyone to bear for too long. The third movement is a funeral march.  We all recognize the opening motif since over time it has been used in movies, cartoons, and video games; some of us remember the ditty we sang as kids, “Pray for the dead and the dead will pray for you.”  Little did we know then or do people know now that it came from Chopin! The march is mournful, but as the volume rises it becomes triumphal. In the middle, a sweet slow melody in a major key rises like the spirit of an angel; then the march and “pray for the dead” is taken up again, before fading away.

 Daniel Hsu introduced the pieces in the second half of the program.  He is known to do a lot of research so that he understands the context of the works he plays; this knowledge informs his interpretation.  Franz Liszt, the Hungarian Romantic who drew swooning crowds of women, yesterday’s roadies, to his performances – it pays to be a “Romantic!” – was one of the greatest pianists of the era. Hsu said that Liszt used his technical skill “for evil,” by writing Etudes almost impossible for anyone else to play.  Of course, that’s like saying “I dare you to try this,” so pianists regularly tackle his Etudes as showpieces for their performances. The “Wild Hunt” was ably tackled down by Hsu, its difficulty masked by his easy mastery, allowing the story to shine through.  During the course of the piece, Hsu brought us the frantic excitement of the chase, the sound of the hunting horn, the hunters riding through the beautiful countryside.  His control of dynamics brought different lines into focus as the hunt progresses.

The last piece, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, paints in music; it tells ten stories within a story. A person is walking through an art gallery, and is fascinated by the stories told in the pictures on the wall.  The Promenade recurs as a theme and variations five times, as the museum goer wanders through the halls, walking first in a staid cadence, but quickening his steps as he gets more excited along the way. The variety of pictures give Mussorgsky and Hsu a chance to explore many styles and moods, from the high and playful voices of children in the Tuileries juxtaposed immediately to the plodding gait of cattle, from the happy bustling crowds at the Market at Limoges expressed in 32cd notes to the Roman catacombs, described in somber whole notes. The whole piece is playful and colorful, allowing Hsu to express a wide range of moods and techniques. It ends calmly; the museum goer leaves pleasantly satiated from his experience at the Exhibition.

And there was dessert too!  Hsu’s hana hou, Schumann’s quintessentially Romantic piece, Traumerei or “Dreaming,” is a technically easy but emotionally difficult piece. Hsu has been aptly called a poet, as the quiet melody resonated simply and clearly, with exquisite timing and tone. His playing, while often ethereal, does not lack substance. Like Mussorgsky’s museum goer, the audience was satiated.  We floated out the door carried by the romance of his music and the sweetness of the dream.


Meizhu Lui didn’t know there was any other kind of music except classical until she hit junior high!  Piano and flute have been her own instruments of choice. She is now pursuing her bucket list goal of deepening her musical knowledge and skills.

Photos: Steve Roby

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