• Sarah Kwok

Feng Bian - July 19-20

Updated: Jul 19, 2019

Feng Bian will be tickling the ivories twice this weekend, with a program of solo piano works on Friday night and as part of a piano trio on Saturday night. Keep reading as he discusses contrasts and variations, reflecting on the present moment with musical improvisation, and one of the most beloved piano trios of all time.

The solo program on Friday night has quite a range of musical styles, from Baroque to Romantic to classical jazz - can you talk more about your programming choices when putting these together for the performance? And what is it like playing so many different styles in one evening? 

The reason I chose this specific program is because a variety of styles tends to keep the listeners interested. Just like how the majority of captivating compositions would use contrast as one of the main elements in refreshing the listener’s appetite, the versatility of compositional styles in a concert is also a key ingredient in keeping audience’s interest. 

Other than the obvious reason of providing a contrasting program, story-telling is also a major factor which played an important role in my decision of the program and the order in which I present them. The program opens with two of Earl Wild’s transcription on Gershwin’s songs, the charm and communicative power of the jazz/ ballad style immediately draws the listeners into a kaleidoscopic world of sounds and emotions. The next set of pieces in line is three Scarlatti Sonatas. The switch from early 20th century America to 17th century Spain/Italy creates a sense of time travel that is filled with flair and vigor. The following Liszt/ Schubert transcriptions and Rachmaninoff’s Etude Tableaux Op.39 No.5 slowly brings the atmosphere of the program to a darker and deeper place, which is finally met by Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major, Op.17. This piece, which stands as a statement and testimony of Schumann’s love for Clara, undergoes a journey of torment-heroic march-transcendence. It is both structurally and emotionally complex and its breath-taking experience serves as the core of the program. Finally we have Carl Vine’s exciting Toccatissimo. This is an ultra virtuosic piece which explores a wide range of texture and rhythms and I believe the audiences will really enjoy this piece. 

You also have a talent for improvising - can the Friday audience expect to hear any? And what is your process/inspiration/preparation/mindset when improvising?

Thank you so much for asking about this, because improvisation is one of my biggest passions. I treat improvisation as a way of liberating myself from the control of written music. Certainly there’s plenty of room for creativity and freedom in interpretive performances, but as a musician I can’t be completely myself until I am creating my own piece on the spot. The way I approach the improvisations can be both planned and unplanned. Sometimes prior to the performance I will think about the general style (it can be borrowing stylistic elements from a certain period), the structure (binary form, ternary form, sonata form or a certain narrative) and thematic materials; some other times I will simply play off whatever emotions and thoughts that comes to my mind, and trying to express them through a musical and coherent way is one of the most exciting things for me.  My inspiration can come from anything. It can be a person who just passed by in front of me, the noise in the air, the collective emotion in the room (audiences) or simply that unfathomable part of our consciousness.  

During the performances, there are usually three ways that I would do my improvisation. One is that I will take a suggestion from the audience (a few notes or a tune) and base the improvisation on that. The second one is harmonic improvisation which is similar to the jazz musicians’ style. The third is much freer than the previous two because it is not based on anything. It is an honest reflection of what I feel at that specific moment.  It may or may not have a stylistic affiliation, but if it does it is because of the demands of the narrative.  Unfortunately this time the program is focused on composed music, but I will probably do a couple of improvisations as an encore. 

The trio program on Saturday includes the Piano Trio in E-flat Major by Franz Schubert, which is described as 'one of the most precious selections of piano trio repertoire and a moving experience for all audiences' - what is it about this piece that makes it such a masterful work? And how do the other pieces on the program fit together with it?

This piece does not only have one of the most beloved second movement of all piano trios, it also shows Schubert’s magnificent late style. While the lyrical nature of Schubert’s composition is maintained throughout this piece, the grand and assertive nature of this piece marks a slightly unusual side of Schubert’s output. Although this aspect of his style has been reflected in his Symphony No.9 along with a few other works, this piano trio has more flexibility and spontaneity. The constant shift between heroism and tenderness, melancholy and joy, hesitation and assertiveness are extremely challenging for the players due to the fact that the structure is not immediately clear to the listeners. However the richness of the music and its quest for the grandness of human emotion and spirit is worth all the effort of me and my partners. My colleagues- violinist Timothy Steeves and cellist July Lou are both incredible musicians, they bring such life and conviction to this daunting piece. 

The seriousness and complexity of Schubert’s piano trio is well-balanced by the light-hearted Gypsy trio of Joseph Haydn and the poetic beauty of Linda Caitlin Smith’s Far from Shore. I believe that the audiences will enjoy this program very much. 

I think you'll enjoy it too, so go see Feng Bian in a solo piano program on July 19 and as part of a piano trio on July 20, both at Tom Lee Music in Vancouver at 6pm.

More information: https://muzewest.wordpress.com/upcoming-concerts/

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