Taiwan-born pianist Chen Ruei-bin (陳瑞斌) has spent most of his life abroad, having left his hometown in Tainan at age 13 to train in Vienna. He now divides his time between Europe and the US, performing a grueling schedule of concerts. He trained under the Russian master Lazar Berman, and is known for his energetic, sometimes athletic performance style, as well as for his interpretation of modern Russian composers such as Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff. Earlier this month he performed in Taipei and Kaohsiung, and on April 6 he will perform in Taichung.
In addition to receiving numerous international accolades, Chen won the Taiwan Millennium Best Artistic Performance Award (台灣最佳表演藝術獎) in 2000 and in 2004 he took home Golden Melody Awards (台灣金曲獎) for best classical album and best performance. At his Concert of Russian Ballet Music (陳瑞斌俄羅斯芭蕾鋼琴音樂會) at the National Concert Hall, Taipei City last week, Chen was given an enthusiastic response despite the unconventional nature of the program, which opened with two movements from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Ballet Suite, Op. 75, and finished with three movements from Stravinsky’s Petrushka.
In an interview with the Taipei Times last week, Chen said he particularly enjoyed playing technically demanding music such as Petrushka, which is not well-known in Taiwan, because it was a chance to “show how good I am.” Chen is determined to prove himself in the eyes of his peers, and his efforts have achieved considerable success. He is now a much sought-after soloist.
Photo Courtesy of Capriccio Chamber Orchestra
But Chen’s career as a concert pianist was far from a foregone conclusion. He described his childhood in rural Tainan, where at the time few people would have been familiar with a concert piano. “Unlike many younger Asian musicians, I was never given a structured musical education,” he said. “It just happened that my father taught music at a local primary school and we had a piano in the house. It was a secondhand Japanese-made piano and must be nearly 100 years old by now.” He went on to describe how his father would search out old vinyl recordings of classical music to listen to. “Often the crackling of the needle was even louder than the music,” he said.
Chen’s uncle, a musician in Taipei, would occasionally visit and give his nephew a piano lesson, but that was the extent of Chen’s formal musical education. Despite this rather haphazard foundation, Chen won himself the opportunity to study at the Vienna Conservatory after being selected in a government national talent search program.
“The first time I ever got on an aircraft was to fly to Vienna,” he said with a chuckle. Prior to arriving in Vienna, Chen said he was not at all sure he would pursue a career in music. “My parents didn’t really know what to do [about this opportunity to study abroad], so they thought I might as well go and see what would come of it. If I could come back with some kind of diploma, that would have been sufficient.”
His love of music began in the concert halls and opera houses of Vienna. “I didn’t speak any German when I arrived,” Chen said, “so there wasn’t much for me to do other than go listen to music. That is when I came to love music and decided to continue on this path.”
To subsidize his stay in Europe, Chen said he began registering for all the piano competitions he could. “I was pretty lucky that I managed to pick up quite a few prizes, and in this way, my musical career also developed.”
Chen made his European concert debut at the Grossensaal of the Vienna Konzerthaus in 1984 to considerable acclaim and his career as a concert pianist has never looked back. He has performed in many of the great concert halls of the world and worked with some of its most notable orchestras. Although he returns to Taiwan regularly, he says he feels as much European as Taiwanese. “After all, I have spent longer abroad than I have in Taiwan,” he said. Chen said that having been thrown into a foreign environment at such a young age, he needed to educate himself in a way that many other young Asian pianists do not. “At the time, few aspiring Asian musicians would have gone overseas so young [Chen was just 13], or at least they would have traveled in the company of their parents. I was on my own and had to deal with everything myself. My career is a totally different world for my parents, one that they have little understanding of.”
Chen’s performance style has been deeply influenced by his last mentor, the Russian virtuoso Berman.
The pianist said that he was the only Asian student ever taken on by Berman and talked about his work developing a feel for the Russian composers. “In playing a piece like Petrushka, the technical challenges are considerable. You need a total command of the skills, before you can start giving it the true Russian feeling … The physical demands are huge.” At the Taipei concert, Chen attacked and caressed the piano by turn, giving substance to a much quoted Boston Globe review describing his performance style as one of “white-hot energy, steel-fingered power and athletic virtuosity.”
Chen’s combination of technical skill and Russian passion will be on display at the Chunghsing Concert Hall, Taichung (台中中興堂), 291-3 Chingwu Rd, Greater Taichung (台中市精武路291之3號) on April 6. A small number of tickets are still available and can be purchased through ERA ticketing by calling (02) 2341-9898, or from www.ticket.com.tw.
Until this summer, when the idea of hiking the length of the island first occurred to me, I didn’t even know that Cijin (旗津) had been a peninsula until 1967. That’s when diggers and dredgers severed Cijin from Taiwan’s “mainland,” because the authorities wished to create a southern entrance to Kaohsiung’s fast expanding port. The island is just under 9km long, but a bit of research quickly convinced me that a south-to-north trek wasn’t a good idea. The southern third of Cijin is dominated by container-lifting cranes, warehouses and other facilities off-limits to the public. Dunhe Street (敦和街) forms the boundary between
As if the climbs and views and snacks and companions of cycling in Taiwan aren’t sufficient, the GPS-generation of route-planners are now using apps such as Strava and Endomondo to create works of art as they ride. One such is nicknamed the Dove Road of Sijhih (汐鴿路), a 25km ride that follows the riverside bike path from the Nangang-Neihu Bridge (南湖橋) to New Taipei City’s Sijhih District (汐止), climbs around 400m up the Sijhih-Shiding Road (汐碇路), before dropping back down past Academia Sinica to generate a very dove-like pattern. Originally called Kippanas by indigenous Ketagalan people and transliterated into Hoklo (more commonly
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a way urban households can obtain healthy produce, while helping to build a more sustainable farming sector in Taiwan. King Hsin-i’s (金欣儀) transformation from advertising copywriter to social entrepreneur began in 2008, when she visited a rice farmer who practiced pesticide-free agriculture. “He explained that we have to leave space for other species. At the same time, I realized that while big companies have budgets to spread their messages, farmers have few chances to tell the public about their beautiful concepts,” she recalls. Inspired, she quit her job and traveled throughout rural Taiwan for a year. King went
If ever there was a reason to be inside on Mid-Autumn Festival, even for just an hour or so, while still celebrating the natural world, Cheng Tsung-lung (鄭宗龍) has provided one with his first full-length work for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (雲門舞集) as artistic director, Sounding Light (定光). Judging by the excerpt performed for the press last week, Cheng shows he can be just as minimalistic as his mentor, troupe founder Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), while still forging his own unique path. Just as he did with last year’s Lunar Halo (毛月亮), his final work as director of Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2), Cheng