Frederic Chiu’s mission is to use his skills on the piano to convert others into classical music fans.
At Chautauqua, that’s not a hard feat.
“It’s like a little intellectual paradise,” said Chiu, a renowned concert pianist. “The audience is particularly open-minded and experienced in different kinds of composers and music that might be presented. It’s a really well-prepared audience.”
Chiu enjoys the mental challenge piano presents, and likes to challenge his audience, too, with pieces that beg for attentive listening. He’ll be playing a rare Franz Liszt solo piano arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in a recital at 4 p.m. Friday in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. Chiu will also lead a master class at 11 a.m. Saturday in Sherwood-Marsh Studios.
Chiu said the uncommon arrangement, though “not so unusual for Chautauqua,” remarkably captures the detail of Beethoven’s work even with one person playing rather than a whole orchestra, as the composer intended. It’s also a fitting choice for Chiu, who played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in his last visit to Chautauqua.
Chiu didn’t always see himself going down this path. He first began playing at the urging of his parents, and said by college it was “an obvious choice” to study music. But it wasn’t until Chiu was in his mid-20s, after graduating college and studying at Juilliard, that he decided to make piano his lifelong career.
“At that point I realized that I had done all this training and was passionate about playing,” Chiu said. “Things started moving fast for me when I decided consciously to be (a) pianist.”
During his successful career as a pianist, Chiu has recorded more than 25 CDs, including the complete work of Sergei Prokofiev — a project that took more than 10 years to complete. In the ’80s and ’90s he had the chance to record at George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound studios, where he said he often saw well-known stars around the building. (One time, while walking between the sound booth and the stage, he stumbled upon a box of tapes labeled “Star Wars: Episode I.”) Those “incredible conditions,” Chiu said, will probably never happen again.
According to Chiu, streaming and downloading technology has “changed the formula completely.” While the quality of playing has remained the same and the ability to record has become easier, he said the financial support is no longer there.
Despite the changing nature of the recording industry, Chiu still has the outlet to do what he loves. He’s continuing to work on exciting projects, like his “Classical Smackdown” series that currently has two installments and that he’s looking to expand.
In addition to his recordings, Chiu enjoys playing in concert performances. That’s when he does his “most intense thinking on all subjects.” During concerts, Chiu said it’s as if he’s watching the performance from the outside.
“I imagine what an outside listener is experiencing so I can guide my performance,” Chiu said. “I’m constantly putting myself in the shoes of the listener and figuring out what they’re experiencing.”
His favorite concerts to perform are in smaller venues that allow “opportunity for real connection.” It’s in these smaller halls with about 100 people, or a living room with 20, that Chiu is able to engage an audience and welcome new fans to this genre.
Chiu has many more years of introducing audiences to classical piano. Since piano playing requires more intellectual energy than physical strain, he said pianists only get better with age.
And Chiu doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“I certainly expect to play until the end of my days,” Chiu said. “I don’t know when that might be and what I’ll be playing, but I look forward to playing more and more.”