Click here for the archive of profiles that takes you behind the scenes with some of the featured performers who bring their special talents to Emmanuel Music.
Ya-Fei Chuang’s earliest memory is of a keyboard, and from her first encounter with one she could not imagine living without a piano. But when a career-threatening injury took her away from the piano she loved so much, the painful experience ultimately made her a better and deeper musician.
Chuang’s musical commitment and success came early. She grew up in a small fishing village in Taiwan, one of six sisters whose parents were music lovers but not musicians. When Chuang was 3½ years old her mother bought a harmonium, intending for an older sister to take lessons. Chuang was immediately drawn to the instrument. “When I thought I was alone at home I tried to play songs I had heard on the radio. I couldn’t reach the bellows so I played standing instead of sitting, in order to push them.”
Chuang’s mother was home and realized at once that this was the daughter who should take music lessons. From that moment the piano became Chuang’s life. She was dedicated and focused. At every meal it was difficult for her mother to lure her away from her beloved instrument. Chuang performed in public for the first time at age five, appeared on national television at age eight, and gave her first solo recital at age nine. She won first prize in the National Piano Competition at age eleven.
A visiting German chemist, and a good amateur pianist in his own right, heard Chuang play at age nine and asked for a tape to bring back to the Freiburg Conservatory. It included works of Haydn , Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, and Debussy. Soon Chuang had offers to study with full scholarships at the conservatories of Freiburg and Paris. She was eager to go, but her mother insisted that she finish elementary school and have a strong grounding in Chinese. After studying piano in Freiburg for two summers, Chuang was ready to move there at age 13. She lived with a family, learned German, and studied both in high school and at the conservatory. She did not return to Taiwan for over two years, because the trip was too expensive.
Chuang blossomed in Germany. “It was inspiring to be in a culture where love of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, and so many other great musicians came alive. These were the composers who already meant so much to me,” Chuang says. And because her teachers came from many countries, this experience opened the entire world to her. Her training in Freiburg opened up new interpretative perspectives, honed her technique, and deepened both her artistic aspirations and her ability to communicate her perceptions on the concert stage.
Chuang finished her artist diploma in Cologne and then came to Boston to study with Russell Sherman at the New England Conservatory. “I was so grateful to be accepted as Mr. Sherman’s student,” Chuang says. “I knew his recordings and knew of his status as a legendary teacher.” This relationship became central to Chuang’s development as a musician. “I would not be what I am without Mr. Sherman,” she says. “He was the person who helped me be brave and go to the deepest emotions in my playing.”
But just before finishing her degree at NEC, Chuang suffered a terrible hand injury when moving a heavy table. This kept her away from the piano for several years. She thought she would never play again.
Chuang is profoundly grateful that, during this anguished period, Mark Churchill and Marilyn Roth invited her to join the faculty of the NEC Preparatory Division. She later accepted a second teaching position, at The Boston Conservatory. “I learn so much from teaching,” Chuang says. “I start to think about how to transmit insights into practice techniques, how to plan for the students’ future, and how to share what I know with my students.” Chuang’s students are always in the back of her mind as she continually thinks about how she can help them “in music and in life.”
As she first began to teach Chuang also decided that, even if she wasn’t ready to return to the concert stage, she would try to play for herself. “I thought I could bring into my life the music that was essential to my well-being. And as I started to play, my body started to recover.” Her teaching and her return to performance created a turning point in Chuang’s life.
The more that Chuang played the more she realized that she had become a different musician. She was no longer the young pianist who simply loved to perform and who experienced early success. Now her injury made her appreciate everything so much more, and Chuang brought to her playing the kind of deep experience that Russell Sherman had encouraged in her. “It takes courage to feel the depths and pain in the music and to share that with the audience,” Chuang says. “But this very intimate experience of sharing is immensely fulfilling when people respond with the same kind of deep feeling.”
Her injury behind her, Chuang now performs all over the world. At home in Boston she has often been a featured Emmanuel Music pianist. She appeared in both the Schubert and Schumann chamber series, was one of 13 pianists performing J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, and performed Mozart keyboard works on fortepiano solo and four hands with her husband, pianist Robert Levin, in the 2014 Lindsey Chapel series. In November 2014 Chuang performed in Emmanuel Music’s opening concert of the Mendelssohn/Wolf series.
Chuang’s quest to learn and grow never ends. She had the good fortune to meet Alfred Brendel, who, upon hearing commercial CDs of two of her live concerts from the Ruhr Festival in Germany, invited her to come to London and work with him. After one of their sessions together, he surprised her by handing her a letter in which he called her “a pianist of extraordinary ability, intelligence, sensitivity and command. . . [whose] playing of Liszt’s demanding version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture can stand any comparison” and wished her “a brilliant future.”
Brendel has continued to mentor Chuang and promote her artistic development. He welcomes her to his home in London whenever she is able to come. They play music together, listen to music together, visit art museums, talk at length, and share impressions. “I am so extraordinarily fortunate to have Mr. Brendel’s guidance,” Chuang says. “He thinks of repertoire for me and recently suggested that I learn the Schubert Wanderer Fantasy. Within days of my return home I received the score from him, annotated copiously for me with his personal thoughts about the piece. I was moved to tears by this most generous gift.”
Chuang continues her musical journey as a teacher, a student, and a performer by keeping her sights fixed on the challenges that lie ahead.