Alvin Zhu chose two piano pieces for his Chautauqua recital based on the time periods they were written in — not for the century or era, but because both were completed during pivotal points in the composers’ lives.
Like them, Zhu has found himself in a pivotal moment of his own.
“Everything about the future of music is up in the air right now,” Zhu said. “I look to these composers as examples — they show us what good can come out of the metamorphosis of oneself and their circumstances.”
Zhu, pianist and piano, chamber music and music history professor at Tianjin Juilliard, will give a recital at 4 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 22, on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch. The program features Johannes Brahms’ “Acht Klavierstücke” Op. 76 and Alexander Scriabin’s “Fantaisie” in B minor, Op. 28.
The two works he selected were written less than two decades apart, and yet, “so many things have changed,” according to Zhu.
“You can feel that evolution in terms of what direction music was going toward into the 20th century,” he said.
“Acht Klavierstücke” is a 30-minute eight-movement piece. Brahms composed it in the summer of 1879. He had not produced any piano works for public consumption in 15 years.
“This set is often forgotten, which is such a shame,” Zhu said. “Through the lens of this introductory work, you can hear hints of what his later, very famous piano pieces would sound like.”
The eight movements are separate miniatures, each with its own distinct “character and charm.” They are divided into two main types: the faster, more extroverted capriccios — movements 1, 2, 5, and 8 — and the slower, more introspective intermezzos — 3, 4, 6, and 7.
“It’s hard to play it so that each piece is not just a drop in an endless pool, but interwoven into a larger story,” Zhu said. “Much like constellations we see in the stars, they are randomized, but we can form connections.”
“Fantaisie” is a shorter selection, finishing off the program in just under 10 minutes. Scriabin wrote “Fantaisie” in 1900 during his tenure at the Moscow Conservatory, bridging the gap between his third and his fourth sonata. Zhu said “Fantaisie” was completed at the cusp of his “metamorphosis as a composer,” finally divorcing himself from the sounds of Polish composer Frédéric Chopin.
“Scriabin, in the beginning of his composition career, was always emulating Chopin,” Zhu said. “It wasn’t until his fourth piano sonata that he began to break away and become much more of the late Scriabin that we know.”
Unlike “Acht Klavierstücke,” “Fantaisie” is one complete story, which Zhu described as a “rollercoaster of emotion.”
“You go through the ups and downs of virtuosity, of passion, of despair, of hopelessness — everything,” he said. “It’s an explosive piece on all fronts. It’s dynamic from the first bar to the triumphant ending.”
Zhu said he believes the digital era of performances is here to stay. The concept isn’t all bad, though. In fact, he’s having fun. Quarantine has granted him more time for performances, master classes and interviews, allowing him to reach a global audience “like never before.”
“As you will hear in my recital, music has undergone many transitions before this, both big and small,” he said. “It’s always been in the back of my mind, even before the pandemic, that these online platforms may be the future of music. I think I’m OK with that.”