April 30 2014 12:00 AM

Young pianist brings mature skills to Lansing Symphony season finale


Andrew Hsu hasn´t touched Robert Schumann´s epic concerto since he performed it seven years ago with the Oakland Symphony, but the guest soloist at tonight’s Lansing Symphony season finale will revisit the piece with the mature soul of a man deep in his advanced teenage years. Did I mention that Hsu is only 19?

"There are only so many things a 12-yearold can think of," Hsu conceded.

Hsu is a throwback to the days of Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt and Rachmaninoff, when performers were also composers. He has written dozens of art songs and chamber works and loves to improvise at the piano. The combination intrigues Lansing Symphony maestro Timothy Muffitt.

"He´s performing great masterworks, like Schumann, but also writing new music from this generation," Muffitt said. "He has a really interesting profile and I´m excited to be working on this piece with him."

Hsu comes to Lansing by arrangement with Kalamazoo´s heavyweight Gilmore Keyboard Festival. Each year, the Lansing Symphony showcases a Gilmore Young Artist, a title bestowed on America´s most promising pianists 22 or younger.

Hsu´s nickname at Philadelphia´s prestigious Curtis Institute, where he studies piano and composition, happens to be "Schumann," not only because he plays the moody Romantic genius’ music like a man possessed, but also because "Hsu" is pronounced "shoe."

A lot of classical pianists are glorified stenographers of other people´s ideas, but Hsu probes Schumann´s shifting moods with the insight of a performer-composer.

“[The Schumann concerto] was originally a fantasy for piano and orchestra, and it´s very improvisational,” Hsu said. “It passes through all these changes in blinks of light.”

The challenge, he said, is to hold it all together.

“It´s difficult to make sure you create a single narrative, not 20.”

Performing and composing have gone hand in hand for Hsu since he started playing piano at 7.

“I had a knack for playing around on the keyboard, recomposing over pieces I was supposed to practice,” he said. His parents wisely decided to go with the flow and started him on composition lessons at age 9.

“I always saw myself as a composer-pianist and I can´t separate the two parts of my personality,” he said. “Separation of composition and performance is a recent novelty that shouldn´t have happened anyway.”

Hsu voraciously reads poetry, combing every collection for texts he can set to music. He considers himself mainly a vocal composer, influenced by the legacy of American legends (and fellow Curtis grads) Ned Rorem and Samuel Barber. He´s working on a cycle of songs based on poems by American poet Sara Teasdale, who committed suicide at 33.

“It´s innocent, romantic poetry, very songful and good to set to music,” he said.

By contrast, Hsu said his instrumental music is more “abstract and gestural,” influenced by 20th-century modernists like Messiaen, Berg and Webern. He also loves jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. (They also have teacher in common: Curtis´ legendary Eleanor Sokoloff.)

Hsu would like to be a modern-day Franz Liszt, not only by performing and writing music, but also by turning people on to other composers´ works. That´s a littleremembered service Liszt performed back in the 19th century, before radio, records or YouTube, when many people who wouldn´t have heard Beethoven´s symphonies were exposed to them via Liszt´s famous piano transcriptions.

Hsu feels wants to do the same with today´s art music.

“Modern contemporary music is greatly misunderstood,” he said. “What is going on in these young composers’ minds? That´s something I´m fascinated with, being one of them myself.”

“Rainbow Body,” the first work on tonight’s slate, is a poster child for new music and has one of the most performed orchestral works of the tender 21st century.

“It was written in 2000 and stands alone,” Muffitt said. ‘There has never been anything quite like it. It´s incredibly uplifting. Every time I do it, people ask me when I´m going to do it again.”

The music is new, but it summons up an ancient feeling that moves audiences deeply. One section of the orchestra plays a note and hangs onto it while another section moves to the next note, creating an uncanny, cathedral-like set of reverberations.

"You get this built-in sustain, this resonance built into the music, and that´s a stunning effect," Muffitt said.

For a fitting season closer, Muffitt chose Johannes Brahms´ Fourth Symphony, a vast and rich tapestry of gorgeous harmonies, textures and melodies unparalleled in all of music.

“I like Schumann/Brahms pairings in concerts,” Muffitt said. “They always work well together for many reasons.” It doesn´t hurt to have the famous soap opera involving Schumann and Brahms (they both loved Clara Schumann) bubbling in the background.

For Muffitt, Brahms´ Fourth is as good as his job gets, but cracking the score can be a little intimidating.

“It´s as though someone had given you the ‘Mona Lisa’ to take care of for the weekend,” he said. “Then, in the process of studying it, you realize that Brahms created a close connection between himself and the performer, even between the centuries. He´s very clear in his scores about how they should unfold.”

The problem is knowing what to do with yourself when the symphony is over. It seems silly to kill yourself, especially when the LSO is about to announce its 2014-‘15 season. Nothing at all is a good option; lighting up a Cuban cigar on an Alpine crag is a distant second.

"There´s little to say after Brahms´ Fourth," Muffitt said. "That´s for sure."