Pianist Wu Han, playing in Hong Kong, on her love of chamber music

Taiwanese-American tells why chamber music is the greatest art form, and how her Chinese heritage helped her excel at it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 January, 2015, 4:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 16 January, 2015, 2:10pm

Even speaking over the phone from New York, you can feel Wu Han's enthusiasm as she talks about her love of chamber music - classical music composed for small groups of players.

"It is one of those art forms that's so incredibly imaginative and inspiring, I'm completely addicted," the 55-year-old pianist says. "Chamber music is the finest thing in life - the most delicious wine, the highlight of human expression."

Wu will be sharing her delight with local audiences in a talk and three public performances that are part of this year's Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival. Organised by Premiere Performances of Hong Kong, the week-long festival (January 14 to 21) will feature paid and free events, including five big concerts.

The recitals will mark Wu's debut in Hong Kong.

For the evening gala concert on January 19, she will perform Tchaikovsky's Piano Trio in A minor alongside two other renowned international musicians: violinist Kyoko Takezawa and cellist Lynn Harrell.

"For the past 20 years, I worked really hard in the US and haven't had much opportunity to work in the Far East. I'm curious to see what's going on in Hong Kong and what its chamber music development is like," Wu says, before adding, with a giggle: "I also heard Hong Kong has the greatest food in the world."

On Friday, Wu - who with her cellist husband David Finckel were named musicians of the year in 2012 by Musical America magazine - will give a talk at the Asia Society about her career and, no doubt, her love of chamber music.

Born in Taiwan, Wu first immersed herself in the world of chamber music in her early 20s, when she travelled to America to continue her music studies. She describes herself as a latecomer to this more cosy and collaborative musical form as before that she had been a soloist. "Pianists are very lonely animals. Chamber music is much more fun - you are always ready to respond to your surroundings."

Wu says she has witnessed a rapid growth of chamber music in recent decades as more and more classical musicians are becoming interested in the art. "It's is all about communication, and when it's done right, it goes straight into one's heart. The process requires total command of your instrument, flexibility and inventiveness in responding to others, a complete understanding of the score, and also a democratic, positive and productive attitude to be able to bring this art form to the highest level," she told the website Interlude last month.

Wu and Finckel were appointed co-artistic directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Centre in New York in 2004. The organisation is said to be the largest of its kind dedicated to the performance and promotion of chamber music.

Pianists are very lonely animals. Chamber music is much mor fun - you are always ready to respond to your surroundings
Wu Han

The society arranges 200 to 250 chamber music recitals each year across the US and around the world. "It is a very rewarding experience," she says. "The Lincoln Centre is an amazing organisation and I'm very honoured to have this job."

With Finckel, Wu co-founded [email protected] in 2003, an annual summer chamber music festival in Silicon Valley. Together, the couple created the programming, which made Menlo "one of the world's top tier chamber music festivals".

The husband and wife team also founded and run an internet-based recording company called ArtistLed. Wu describes this online outfit as "the best thing I've ever done" as it gives her and her husband "complete artistic freedom" in recording music.

Wu admits she's a workaholic. "People say, 'Oh my gosh, you work so hard', but to me, I'm in heaven. I have the best job in the world."

Travelling is a big part of the job and brings new ideas and possibilities. She says the strict discipline and work ethic she was taught growing up in Asia is a huge part of who she is today.

"My duties demand high self-discipline and commitment; I learned those qualities at a young age."

Her parents first piqued her interest in Western music, which grew into a deep passion.

"I'll always remember how excited my parents would get when they heard good music," she says. "My father thought [Western music] was spectacular and that everyone should learn how to make it."

The conviction that music can change one's life stayed with Wu throughout her studies and career. Describing her approach to music as "healthy", she believes that making music is "really fun and engaging".

Yet, there is also a deep sense of accountability to what she loves most. "I'm the only Chinese woman holding such huge responsibility in the intense environment of performing arts."

For her upcoming talk in Hong Kong, Wu plans to share her experience in chamber music and how non-profit organisations work in the US. She also looks forward to establishing new partnerships and collaborations with local performing groups.

Wu Han will be giving a free talk "Up Close and Personal: A Conversation with Wu Han" at the Asia Society on Fri, Jan 16 at 7pm. She will also perform at the HK International Chamber Music Festival on Jan 18, 19 and 21.