Pianist Daniel Hsu wrestles with Beethoven in Lansing Symphony finale
There must be some point where even a searching soul like pianist Daniel Hsu is satisfied with his interpretation of a big concerto and feels ready to roll it out.
“I’m going to go with ‘no’ on that one,” he said. “Flatout ‘no.’”
Cocky is not the word for Hsu, 18-year-old guest piano soloist in Wednesday’s block buster-heavy Lansing Symphony Orchestra season finale. Every two years, the Lansing Symphony snatches the Gilmore Young Artist from Kalamazoo’s sprawling, star-studded Gilmore International Keyboard Festival for a one-night stand in East Lansing.
“Preparing for the Gilmore at this particular moment, this particular day, I’m in the middle of a mid-life crisis,” Hsu said in total seriousness.
For Hsu, every performance is a completely new ballgame, a practice that comes with a price.
“Some things work and some things don’t,” he said. “That’s a much better way of looking at things, but that also means you’re never quite satisfied.”
For the past two months, Hsu has been working on one of the biggest piano concerti in the repertoire, Beethoven’s Third. He last played the concerto at 12 years old. Six years later, he has different ideas on how to penetrate its joys and mysteries.
“Part of me was born in the wrong generation,” he said. “I don’t necessarily take that as a negative thing, but I get called an old man quite a bit.”
It’s an ambitious concert all around, beginning with “The Phoenix,” a soaring, postmodern rouser by University of Marylandbased composer Mark Edwards Wilson.
Tchaikovsky’s cyclonic, Cyclopean, cymbals-shattering Fourth Symphony will grind the evening — and the 2015-16 season — into the sands of eternity.
The concert promises a lively display of neurotic minds, from Viking-scaled manicdepressives like Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to the “young old man” at the piano.
At Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, Hsu learned to hack out his own way on the stage, studying with keyboard icons like Gary Graffman and 101-year-old Eleanor Sokoloff, who started teaching in 1936 and is still turning out brilliant students.
Far from being stifled by such revered pedagogues, Hsu felt unlocked. The greatest teachers aren’t interested in cranking out clones.
In 2013, dozens of Graffman’s students, Hsu included, assembled at the master’s 85th birthday party.
“I walked away realizing that every one of them is so different in the way they interpret music, and yet they all studied with the same guy,” Hsu said.
He played part of the Beethoven Third for Richard Goode, one of the towering Beethoven pianists of all time, at a Curtis master class. (Goode is also performing at the Gilmore Festival, with an all-Schubert recital at Kalamazoo’s Chenery Auditorium.)
Goode encouraged Hsu to break up the rhythms to reflect the turmoil in Beethoven’s life when he wrote the concerto.
The music is Beethoven in all his extremes, stern as a prison and lush as a garden. Finding the nectar behind the iron moved Hsu deeply.
“It’s all stormy minor (key), and it transitions into the second theme — it’s just pure joy, right? It lasts for a little bit, and it swirls back into where it started,” he said.
He struggled to dig deeper, using only words.
“It’s like — if I were to die here, this is what it is, what made life so valuable,” he said.
Hsu used to think of the concerto’s ending as “this angry, stormy rhythmic music,” but things look different at 18 than they did at 12.
“There are a lot of interesting takes on it that aren’t in your face, and they work very well,” he said.
Hsu’s Lansing appearance is a first, for more than one reason. Two years ago, his older brother, Andrew, got two standing ovations after zestfully ripping into the Schumann Piano Concerto with the Lansing Symphony and music director Timothy Muffitt.
“He’s always like that,” Daniel said of his brother.
The eldest of three Hsu siblings, Ashley, is also a pianist. For a couple of years, the three Hsus comprised one-sixth of the piano studio at the Curtis Institute. The gang has split up, though. Andrew is working on a master’s degree in composition at the Juilliard School, and Ashley is at Columbia University going for a master of fine arts, leaving Daniel alone at Curtis.
“It’s a really weird thing for me,” he said. “When I have a problem or something I can’t quite grasp, they’re the first people I turn to. Maybe my teachers won’t be happy to hear that.”
But the siblings remain close and stay in frequent touch.
“It’s a lot of repertoire talk — what goes with what — music discussions, casual stuff like friends and girls and boys and all that,” he said.
They share a passion for the CBS TV series “The Mentalist” and compare notes on each new episode. The only thing they don’t do is kill each other’s vibe.
“We don’t have a rule that if one person plays something, the other can’t,” he said.
“It’s a free for all. We play stuff back to back, on top of each other, whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
In addition to the Lansing gig, Hsu is playing at three Gilmore Festival events, tackling an ambitious slate of Schubert, Liszt and Mussorgsky’s epic showpiece, “Pictures at an Exhibition.” On June 21, a few days before his 19th birthday, he’ll make his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, playing Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.
“That’s a big deal for me,” he said. “After that — summer is the best. You can relax and practice new repertoire.”
He’ll dive for the first time into the impressionist colors of Ravel and Debussy, with forays into the ecstatic music of Scriabin, the clarity of Mozart and that Schumann concerto, which he’ll play in Grand Rapids next season.
“It’ll be a good — a great summer,” he enthused, mid-life crisis forgotten for a minute.
MasterWorks 6: Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4
Lansing Symphony Orchestra with Daniel Hsu, piano
8 p.m. Wednesday, May 4
Tickets start at $20 Wharton Center 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing
(517) 487-5001, lansingsymphony.org