Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Amazing Musical Journey of Rueibin Chen

The Amazing Musical Journey of Rueibin Chen

Interview by The Panorama Magazine

Aug 2015

The taiwanese musical prodigy who became famous at a young age: Rueibin Chen, a pianist who now lives in Austria.
In 1980, then only 13 years old, Chen traveled on his own to Austria to study music. At age 16, he came to public attention by winning the Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition in Italy. In the more than three decades since then, Chen has won countless prizes from all over the world and received rave reviews for his performances. Naturally, accolades have also come from the land of his birth Taiwan.
Although this internationally renowned pianist left home at a young age, his local accent remains unchanged and today Chen still speaks in heavily Taiwanese-accented Mandarin Chinese. It gives one a sense of familiarity, and the sense of distance that one might feel talking with a world-famous classical musician disappears. In addition, his music carries a profound nostalgia for home, and reminds us that music has no borders.
Rueibin Chen had already won gold medals in five major international competitions before he was 20. His technique and his sensitive musicality had critics saying he has “the fingers of an angel,” and his natural, passionate on-stage charisma made him beloved among music fans around the world.
In 2013, the 140th anniversary of the birth of the Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, in order to show his profound respect for this great musician Chen embarked on a world tour of recitals entitled “Listen: Total Rachmaninoff.” The tour began in his motherland Taiwan, and from there went on to Beijing, New York, and elsewhere.
“This was not something you could describe as ‘fun,’” says Chen. The first night he performed three pieces, and had to change shirts three times, because he was soaked through with sweat after each composition.
In the process of performing works by Rachmaninoff, Rueibin Chen has re-experienced that first challenging and incredible journey to another land when he was 13, and that moment at age 16 when he dazzled the entire audience in Italy during the Rachmaninoff Piano Competition.

Far from home, alone
Chen was born into a musical family, and says of himself:
“There was a piano waiting from the moment I was born.”
But Chen did not, as one might think, have an exceptional musical education. His father taught school in Tainan, and Chen grew up in the countryside, where there was no music track in the schools and he had no opportunities to travel to Taipei to study with any master teachers. He had to improvise his own piano education, supplemented by tips he got from his uncle, a music teacher in Taipei who made occasional trips south.
Chen relates that in those days, when there were no IT tools like there are today, any kind of materials about music, whether textual or audio, were in short supply. Anyone who wanted to seriously study music had little choice but to go abroad.
When he was 13, Chen passed the exam qualifying him to go abroad. His father borrowed money through two rotating credit clubs and gathered up just enough cash for Rueibin to travel alone to Vienna.
Thus Chen’s first time away from home was to go abroad, and his first time abroad was to be alone in distant Austria, a country which at that time had very few Chinese people at all. For a 13-year-old child, this was a very severe challenge and even could be considered dangerous.
“Can you imagine a child going on his own to study German, going on his own to find a guardian, going on his own to the police station to handle his residency process, going on his own to rent an apartment?” Two years later his younger brother, who by then was 13 years old, was also sent to Vienna to study music, meaning that Rueibin, then just 15, had to take on the enormous responsibility of looking after his sibling.
He recalls that at that time it was not possible to remit money directly from Taiwan to Austria, and it had to be routed through the US to Vienna, a process that took six months. Therefore Chen had to estimate all of his expenses half a year in advance, and give his father lots of warning time. “The first thing I did every morning when I woke up was to look at my bank passbook, because I was very scared that I would make a mistake and spend money that I didn’t have!”
Because it is impossible to practice piano without making noise, Chen was several times asked by landlords to move out of places that he had rented, each time making him feel more isolated and helpless. “Eventually I found an old house, nearly 300 years old, where I could play to my heart’s content. The walls of this old house were quite thick, and the ceiling was high,” he reminisces, “It was a great place to practice. Almost every piece that I won a prize with in competitions was practiced there.”
At age 16 Chen began to be entirely responsible for himself, earning his living expenses through performances and competitions. “I brooded and felt down when I lost a competition or things weren’t going well, and I often couldn’t get to sleep without sleeping tablets.”
Even more heartbreaking was that ten years after arriving in Vienna, Chen had still not returned to Taiwan even once, nor had any family members gone to Austria to visit him. There was no email, and no mobile apps such as LINE, so he and his family in Taiwan had to rely entirely on snail mail. The only two chances per year he had to speak by phone with his family were at Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival, when overseas phone calls were at a discount, and his family could call him from Taiwan.
“It was always very painful to receive these phone calls,” recalls Chen. Most of the time, because the distance was so vast, there was no point in even thinking about his family. But as soon as he heard their voices, all the defenses he had built up to stay strong day after day completely collapsed.
No pain, no gain. In Austria, one of the capitals of classical music in the West, Chen was able to find rich musical sustenance. But he missed out on the childhood experiences and loving family that most children his age enjoyed. Chen says: “Paying these dues was extremely beneficial to my musical formation, and also had a tremendous impact on the way I perform and interpret music.”

No music, no life
Chen returned to Taiwan to give a performance at age 23. This was the first time he had come back since going abroad ten years previously, and the first time he met with the family he had not seen for such a long time. “When I saw my father at the airport, he was like a stranger to me, and we were hesitant about greeting, not sure that we recognized each other,” Chen recalls.
“My family didn’t have a very clear idea of how my career had developed in Europe. They didn’t know that besides getting certifications for completing studies in both Vienna and Germany, I had also attended other major music schools in Italy, Austria, and France.” It was only two or three years ago that Chen told his mother all of this, and she was dumbfounded.
Why did he travel all over to learn? Chen explains that in Europe people put a lot of emphasis on tradition, and each country or location has unique features or characteristics to its musical traditions. Therefore, except for Britain, which wasn’t directly accessible by train in those days, he wanted to visit as many places as he could to get a taste of what they had to teach.
At age 20 Chen traveled to Israel, where he won a prize in the Rubinstein International Competition. It was there that he met a man who would influence him profoundly: the Soviet Jewish pianist Lazar Berman. Chen became Berman’s one and only Asian student. For a full six or seven years thereafter, an average of once a month he would travel over ten hours by train to have a class with Berman. “Each time we would play for four or five hours, and by the end of class my hands were really hurting, so I would have to rest for two days before I could play again.”
Chen tried, from Berman’s music and life, to understand the enigmatic, profound, and sometimes grandiose Russian soul. “My teacher only became famous when he was 50 years old, because the KGB would not let him go abroad,” recounts Chen, saying that his teacher’s perseverance and refusal to give up inspired the same attitude in him.

The fingers of an angel
The media has often described Chen’s deft touch and technique at the piano by saying he has “the fingers of an angel.” But when he performs, not only do you see his digits flying across the keyboard, he uses the energy and vitality of his whole body in the performance. Chen smiles as he tells us, “My friends have laughed at me, telling me that ‘the return on my investment’ is definitely too low!” But he does not act this way deliberately or consciously; rather it is the music that causes him to quite naturally express himself in this way.
One music critic has written: “Chen’s ‘deep touch’ is firm and powerful, his fingering is very clean and accurate, and when his fingers race across the keyboard the articulation is clear, each note is pearl-like, and the tone is full and resonant. All of these things are purely and directly derived from the technique and style of the Russian school of piano.”
The respected Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung even wrote of him: “He is that rare kind of talent that comes along only once every 20 years.”
But what does the expression “the fingers of an angel” really mean? Chen replies: “Maybe it’s a kind of infectiousness that links the onstage emotionally with the offstage!”
Chen confesses, “I was basically forced to reach the level I’m at.” Chen says straight out that for Asians, who generally have a smaller physique, it is more difficult to command the entire piano, especially given that the pieces he performs are all extremely challenging. However, his teachers have never for this reason lowered their expectations or demands. Difficulty is not decided by technique alone, says Chen, but also by “state of mind.” No matter what, resonance, dramatization, passion… he was required to do the same as his teachers.
Some have said that you can hear a deep and rich nostalgia for his motherland in Chen’s performances. Maybe that is why Chen says that works by Rachmaninoff, compared to those of other composers, definitely have a different feeling for him.
Because of the Russian Revolution, Rachmaninoff spent the latter half of his life living in exile in the western United States. His later works all evoke a profound nostalgia and sense of loss for his homeland. Chen, who left home as a mere child, can very much relate to this feeling.
Having played all of the canonical works of classical music, in recent years Chen has devoted more attention to premiering new compositions for piano or symphony. For example, his fingertips have carried works like Love River Concerto, which was inspired by the Love River in Kao¬hsiung, and Cold Night, which is based on Hakka themes, to New York’s Lincoln Center for the Arts, Australia’s Sydney Opera House, and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.
The same music can produce different emotional effects depending upon the listener. When Chen performed Love River Concerto in New York, some Taiwanese who had not been back home for more than 30 years shed tears of homesickness. On the other hand, foreigners who heard the piece got a romanticized notion of the Love River, and some even said they wanted to come to Taiwan to see it for themselves.

Music is his home
If you ask Chen where his home is, the still unmarried pianist says, “That’s hard to say!” If home means ‘house,’ then it’s Austria. But since he is generally on the road performing, his house in Vienna is normally empty.
Call it drifting, if you will, or nomadic. But in any case Chen’s performing career means that he has virtually no “home.”
Over the last couple of years, Chen has performed in a number of benefit events. Last July, after the underground gas explosions in Kao¬hsiung, Chen, who happened to be near the area where the explosions occurred on that night, was deeply touched by the assistance that poured in from the outside world.
In order to thank the citizens of Hong Kong for their generosity, the Capriccio Chamber Orchestra and the Kao¬hsiung City Tourism Association jointly organized a charity concert at the Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall, at which Chen gave solo performances as his way of giving something back to Hong Kong.
The environment and experiences of days gone by created the high-risk, high-thrill, fantasy-like musical journey of Rueibin Chen. It is his belief that musicians today are unlikely ever to have to face such extraordinarily challenging circumstances as he did. Whether that is for better or for worse, only Chen himself can really understand.