Profiling Claire Huangci, pianist

The second concert of the Musikdorf Ernen’s celebrated “Piano” week featured the dynamo American pianist Claire Huangci, winner of the prestigious Géza-Anda Foundation competition (2018). Claire kindly took time out of her pre-concert schedule to talk with me for this blog post.

Do you remember your very first encounter with a piano?
Oh, yes. I was 6, in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia. I think my parents actually bought the piano to put the finish on their new house there, because neither of them played. They kept saying the instrument was a “birthday present” for my sixth birthday, although that didn’t really impress me much. I’d have much preferred something else!  

Why Pennsylvania?
We’d relocated from Northern New York State for my parents’ respective jobs. For my first four years, in fact, it was my Chinese grandmother who raised me, so Chinese was my first language. I only learned to speak English when I went to primary school. Later, my public high school was a huge place—some 3,000 students—and there were lots of other “ABCs” (American-born Chinese) in my circle, some of whom are still very dear friends.

When did you start playing?
Well, although she didn’t play, my mother taught me how to read music. Later on, my first teacher gave me a good foundation of Mozart, Hadyn, and Bach, and I eventually participated in student recitals and small youth competitions. I wasn’t really sure, though, of what I wanted to do around the instrument, although I was known as “the weird piano girl” at school for what seemed a long time. Fortunately, I had a great variety of courses at my school, and also got into the Curtis School of Music at aged 12. That meant travelling into Philadelphia for piano lessons after a half-day at my regular school where, providing I accumulated enough credits, I would be able to graduate with my class. And I did just that. Of course, the daily, and quite long, commute was very stressful.

And you were so young!
Yes, when I started, I thought I’d be the youngest piano student at Curtis, but discovered that somebody even younger was also enrolled. That was Kit Armstrong—then 11—who is still a good friend today.

Who were you teachers at Curtis?
Eleanor Sokoloff and Gary Graffman, which meant learning two different styles, and two different repertoires. I was surrounded by gifted young musicians who’d spent their whole lives in music, many of whom, though, had never been in regular school, nor had math, for example. And I lived at home until, at 17, I moved to Germany, the ide being to broaden my musical horizons, yes, but also to get out from beneath my parents’ thumb. While they weren’t exactly “Tiger parents”, they were strict, being of Asian mentality. In Germany, though, I could find my own rhythm.

Let’s talk about technicalities. Concertizing, studio recordings: How do they differ?
I’ve already seen the recording industry change a lot, and it continues to do so. On-line streaming is the way to go nowadays. So lots of people ask me about the point of still making CDs, and perpetuating that “old” technology. But I think of them as something that makes a stamp of what I am doing at a certain point of my life… not necessarily what I’m performing, but something I will perform once the CD is out.

How do you choose your repertoire and promote your work?
Typically, I choose one genre or composer to explore, such as I recently did with Rachmaninov’s 24 preludes, which was a major undertaking. Lots of people know his “war horses”—the 3-4 most popular melodies—but the remaining 20 preludes are relatively unknown. I’ve taken time to get to know Rachmaninov as a personality, too, even read many of his letters. But it’s my promoter who handles my publicity and record label, and has done so since I was 22.

What’s your impression of Ernen? You’re here for the first time, am I right?
Yes, and like all of Switzerland, it’s super picturesque. Ruth Bossart, who manages the Géza-Anda Concours and Foundation, said I should spend a couple of days here to enjoy it; she knows how I appreciate places like this, since I do love Nature. Okay, I’m not really the mountain-climbing type. You need great discipline to be sportive. Then again, I’m at the age I should start. At some point, I might.

But your concerts are quite physical performances, actually, regardless of repertoire. You bend and move almost like a dancer.
I’ve often been told that, but I learned from an early teacher that the best way to stay fixed on whatever you’re playing is to avoid a stiff core. Your core has to move for your body to really be at one with the music.

Do you go through any ritual to prepare to your concerts?
Yes, I have hearty pasta, maybe a banana, beforehand, and often take a nap, which I need this afternoon before the concert tonight, since I’ve just come in from China.

What about your goals musically?
They’re related to what I want to play, namely things I still don’t yet feel comfortable playing or repertoire I’m still waiting to do. To play any piece, I have to be convinced that I have something to say about it. There are, namely, so many fine pianists today! And if you can’t play something with a 100% commitment, you can be sure that somebody else can. That said, I select works carefully, and am open to different genres. I’d also like to do more chamber music. My Trio Machiavelli (myself and two friends) typically shows darker aspects of music... thus the name. The three of us all have strong personalities, so rehearsals sometimes get a little bit tempestuous, but it’s been a good new step.

Who of other pianists—living or dead—do you admire?
Clara Schumann, whom I’d emulate, not just as a gifted artist, but as a strong female figure. My programme in Ernen starts with a work of hers I haven’t performed before and truly love: Soirées musicales. I’ll also be playing Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C-major, Op. 17. I last played that at age 15, but it’s a piece that revolves around profound feelings I hadn’t encountered at the time. Now, as an adult, I can understand those emotions.

What about composers. Do you favor certain of those?
Well, I don’t define a favorite composer, or pretend to want to specialize in any fixed this time period. When an artist sets a goal, or something they really want to achieve, they’re pretty much setting themselves up for disappointment, because music isn’t something that you can put a grade on. In other words, I believe it’s best not to target playing in a certain concert hall, with a certain orchestra, or win a certain competition—but instead to express your insights into the music as convincingly you can.

Tell us about the Géza-Anda Concours 2018.
It was wonderful: you felt such electricity with the others! I’ve had my share of competitions, but winning this one meant a lot to me because its focus was on German repertoire. I never thought I’d make it to the finals, much less win, and oddly, as I sat there with the other two after the last round, all I could think of was were the things I wished I’d done differently. I kept relatively calm during the chairman of the jury’s speech… then my name was called out first! I only learned later that my parents, who don’t speak German, had been watching via satellite, and when I was the first to stand up, they thought I’d taken third, since there’s usually a countdown to first place. Here it all came so fast.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
Hopefully, with things much the same way as they are now: playing with people I enjoy, more chamber music, perhaps. I love teaching, too; I’m currently assistant to my professor in Hannover, where I graduated in 2016, and work with some of his pupils when he’s abroad. It’s great, but teaching full time wouldn’t make me happy, mainly because the feeling on stage is unparalleled. Some of my colleagues gave up performing careers to enjoy more stability, i.e. a regular paycheck. Would I want that stability over this life? No.

And why’s that?
Well there are a very few exceptions, but as a rule, once you leave it, you can never go back.

Finally, what’s the greatest thing for you about being a concert pianist?
Making an impact on someone, even if that means for one little moment. And truly, that sensation from the audience does get to you physically; I’d say you stay in it for that. The audience itself offers you so much.

Ernen, Thursday, 11 July 2019, by Sarah Batschelet