A life shaped by music

Wellington-based pianist and teacher Jian Liu finds he can be himself and relax into the music when performing. Photo: Tao Meng
Wellington-based pianist and teacher Jian Liu finds he can be himself and relax into the music when performing. Photo: Tao Meng
Wellington-based pianist Jian Liu is looking forward to playing a very special piece of music when he performs with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra for the first time this month. Rebecca Fox discovers his passion for music.

Jian Liu was 6 years old when he heard a piano being played on the street in his hometown of Quingdao, China.

What he heard compelled the young boy to ask his mother for a piano. Little did he know then, the request would set the direction of his life.

Just three years later he was discovered by a teacher from the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.

Aged 9, he moved to Beijing to study with Prof Jin Zhang and stayed there for the next six years.

The piano changed his life again when he was 15, when he left China to take part in an international piano competition.

‘‘After I won the competition, I stayed there and studied.’’

He studied for eight years under Dr Caio Pagano at Arizona State University, where his passion for music began to solidify.

However, he wanted to explore what other options there could be for him, as the only education he had received in China related to music.

So he completed three undergraduate degrees — in business, computing and music.

‘‘After all of these explorations, it is still music that I love the most and wanted to do for the rest of my life.’’

Liu went on to achieve master of music, and master and doctor of musical arts degrees from Yale School of Music, where he was a student of Claude Frank.

He struggles to explain what it is about the piano that makes it so special.

‘‘It’s the music, the indescribable and unspoken connection between the performer and the sound, between the sound and the listeners, that my life is shaped by it, and continues to be affected by it.

‘‘It’s definitely part of my life now. I feel that when I play the piano, I can be myself and relax in the music.’’

Liu moved into teaching, spending four years on the faculty of Yale’s music department.

He believes in passing on what he has learned.

‘‘To keep up the tradition of mentorship in music, as I have experienced and greatly benefited from my own mentors.’’

For Liu, his former teachers Pagano and Frank, in particular, have been strong mentors.

‘‘I have performed with them both, and it’s such an inspiring experience, to see all they’ve taught me in action.’’

Liu has performed as a soloist and chamber musician throughout Europe, Asia and North America, in prestigious concert halls such as Carnegie Hall, Steinway Hall in New York, Rose Hall at Lincoln Centre, Sprague Hall and Woolsey Hall at Yale University, and Paul Hall at The Juilliard School.

However, the lure of New Zealand — its people and beauty — and a teaching job as head of piano studies at the New Zealand School of Music was too great.

‘‘The diverse and vibrate culture in Wellington is another attraction.’’

This position in Wellington also allows him more flexibility to perform as well as teach.

''I greatly appreciate the support from the university in terms of my research in performance so I can still perform as a pianist while teaching fulltime.

''This kind of support and condition is much more rare in the US now, I believe.''

Liu is also an honorary piano professor at Qingdao University in China.

He has noticed a difference in students from New Zealand and the United States, who love music and have chosen to take music as part of personal conviction, and those from China.

''They are very much receptive and open-minded in learning. On the other hand, many of them need some additional support in technical training. While in China, most of the conservatory music students have great technical training, but lack the enthusiasm and passion ... which is also greatly needed to become a musician.''

His advice for young pianists is to ''listen to the beauty of sound and music, take ownership of the music, as a creator of sound''.

''Practice and perseverance: it takes time to develop the skills, since it's both physical and mental. After all, enjoy the experience of music-making.''

Liu has a busy performance schedule and has played with musicians from around the world.

''I also very much loved to perform with pianist Maria Joao Pires, who has such a natural beauty of sound and kinship to phrasing.

''I also have great experience performing chamber music with various musicians, such as cellist Jian Wang and clarinettist David Shifrin, just to name a few.''

Liu is also the founding pianist of Te Koki Trio, the resident trio at the School of Music. The trio has appeared in various chamber series in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

''I love to work with my colleagues Inbal Megiddo and Martin Riseley.''

His upcoming performance with the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra is going to be particularly special for the pianist.

The Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2 was his first complete concerto performed with an orchestra, at just 18 years old.

That was in Kiev, in Ukraine, when he was competing in the final round of the Horowitz International Piano Competition.

''I can still recall the experience quite vividly. It was one of the performances that I was completely immersed in the music and I remember how emotional satisfying it was to perform it with the National Philharmonic of Ukraine.

''The sense of music is so strong that I forgot I was there and I am completely embraced and submerged by the combined sound of piano and orchestra.''

It was one of the performances that solidified his belief and personal conviction in music.

''It is a unique force of nature that can be extremely powerful and beautiful, yet private and personal at the same time.''

So he is looking forward to playing it again with the DSO.

''I have heard many wonderful things about the orchestra and Simon [Over, the guest conductor], so I am certain it will be another very beautiful experience for me.''

Looking at his schedule of performances, he says it is a year of concerto for him ''for some reason''.

He has performed Alfred Hill's Piano Concerto, Beethoven's Triple Concerto, Benjamin Britten's Piano Concerto, Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No1, and now Rachmaninov.

Next month he will go to China with Megiddo and Riseley to play a few concerts there before coming back to play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No4 with the Hawke's Bay Orchestra in December.

Next year begins with a performance in Graz, Austria, where Liu will play a piano duet concert with Hamish Robb, before performing in Nelson at the Adam Music Festival in February.

To see

Rach 2 Russian Romantics, Dunedin Symphony Orchestra, Dunedin Town Hall Saturday, 7.30pm.

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