Rueibin Chen (陳瑞斌) is on a brief stop in Taiwan to see immediate family, before flying out for two sold-out recitals to open the Wallis Annenberg Center in California. He is a former prodigy with a crown-jewel job, a solo pianist who follows gigs from one continent to the next.
When I meet him, he is a bit jet-lagged. He doesn’t sound like the way he plays, which the Boston Globe hails as “white-hot energy, steel-fingered, power and athletic virtuosity.” Offstage, he is a plain-spoken Greater Tainan native with good manners and a slight stammer, who is apparently without the motivation to punch up his statements and make a dazzling impression. He ends long sentences deferentially: “I don’t know the words to express it.”
The son of a public-school music teacher, Chen took up piano at five years old and learned instinctively, making his stage debut with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra at age 10. Shortly afterward, his father wanted to give him a shot at making it in Vienna.
“My father made the decision. I was 13 and couldn’t say no, I didn’t have a choice … Once I was there, I had to finish my education, otherwise how could I find a job?” Chen says.
For the next few years, Chen studied unaccompanied at the Vienna Conservatory under a special waiver of age requirement. In between classes, the teen struggled to find rice at the supermarket and tried to learn German. He also searched for appropriate places to practice his etudes.
“When you are playing piano, you bother your neighbors,” Chen says. “I was evicted many times.”
Meanwhile, he wanted to go home.
“I was so far from Taiwan. When I was little I liked playing Rachmaninoff and Chopin, and I felt that we shared a culture,” he says.
“Rachmaninoff went from Moscow to California’s Beverly Hills, and he never went back. Even though it was so sunny and beautiful there, what he composed was depressive and deep. You could tell that this person was never very happy because he could not go back.”
LIFE AS A TOURING PIANIST
These days, with at least one major engagement per month, Chen is perpetually jet lagged and often spends nights practicing while his home time zone rests.
It’s a solitary lifestyle similar to his childhood in Vienna, with the difference that he has the means to fly to Taiwan whenever he wants. He treats his career like a nine-to-five job, dedicating regular hours and creating timely programs that match the needs of audiences.
“I want to deliver good music to people,” he says. “Taiwanese audiences have a very high expectation of me, because they are familiar with my sound. They want something different each time. I want to create something different each time.”
His latest major tour marks Rachmaninoff’s 140th anniversary. It’s a popular program, and he is among the world’s best at this repertoire — in 1984, he became the youngest winner of the Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition in Italy.
But Chen’s relationship with music has moved beyond his years as a prodigy. In some ways, music has become a much more private matter.
“For example, the older I get, the more I like Brahms,” he says.
“Some composers have a knack for sharing, and have the ability to create communion — for instance Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, they spark chemistry with an audience. But others don’t have that quality, for instance Brahms,” he says.
“For an outdoor concert for 2,000 people, you would not hear anybody performing Brahms, because he is indirect with the emotions. Yet you can hear him when you listen by yourself behind a closed door,” Chen says.
He can now appreciate Vienna, in which the majority of people could not play classical music but were taught how to approach and engage with it. In Taiwan, many children like himself were taught to perform, but not to listen. Most eventually quit, he says.
“It’s more fortunate to have a relationship with music throughout your life,” he says.