Chen Ruei-bin (陳瑞斌) doesn’t get stage fright, but as the concert pianist enters the 3,000-seat performance space in Los Angeles he’s shaking with anxiety. He sits at the piano, straightens himself, pauses and begins to play.
A magnitude 6.4 earthquake had just hit southern Taiwan, devastating much of his home neighborhood of Yongkang District (永康).
“I was in the air when it happened,” he recalls. “I only found out after landing in LA.”
Photo courtesy of Chen Ruei-bin
As he begins to play, he still has no word of his family’s whereabouts. Many in the audience were aware of the situation.
Chen’s ability to persevere under intense pressure is a reason why he is one of the world’s most sought after pianists.
After Chen finishes his final piece, the crowd erupts in a roar.
Photo courtesy of Chen Ruei-bin
“It was the most touching ovation I’d ever received,” he says.
Born to music teachers, Chen grew up in a school staff dormitory: a little Japanese-style house built on short wooden stilts with cats chasing mice under floorboards.
Chen spent much of his childhood at the family piano — a third-hand ivory-keyed 140-year old relic bought from a doctor.
Chen was destined for the stage. After making his debut with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra at age 10, he was sent to Austria to study at the Vienna Conservatory at 13, leaving his family behind in Tainan.
Unable to speak German, he says he barely left the comfort of his piano chair for those first months.
Chen was trained by Lazar Berman, one of the greats of the Russian romantic tradition, who only took on a handful of students, Chen being the only non-European among them. As a former KGB officer, Berman was barred from performing in the West for much of the Cold War.
“He was incredibly strict,” Chen says. “If you didn’t play exactly as he told you to, he’d just get up, walk away and stop teaching you. You had to learn to endure his wrath.”
Chen says Berman calls this the “Russian soul,” a tragic musical outlook that accepts no compromise.
Having lived through World War II and the Cold War, Chen believes it was the brutality and hardship his teacher had experienced that connected him on such a deep emotional level to music.
“Understanding his story and how he related his life to music was the greatest thing I learned from him,” he says.
It takes 20 or 30 years of playing pieces from masters such as Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin to fully comprehend the meaning of their work. Chen says this immense undertaking is compounded by other factors such as historical context, the composer’s personal life and its cultural and philosophical milieu.
“I can feel the weight of history on my shoulders as I play,” Chen says.
To honor the victims of the earthquake, Chen performed Scriabin’s Nocturn for the Left Hand in April of last year. Thankfully, he didn’t have to play at his parents funeral because they survived the earthquake.
“Scriabin suffered from depression,” Chen says, “You can feel his sorrow in his music.”
Scriabin’s music resonates with those who are in the depths of despair, he says, because it encourages them to keep going.
“Music amplifies people’s emotions,” he chuckles, adding that it has to have a greater purpose.
Active in numerous charities, he offers free tickets for families with disabled children to his concerts.
“Whether it’s making music or doing volunteer work, I want to leave behind as much as I can for this world.”
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