Catch the Rising Stars.
Born in Beijing, Hsing-ay Hsu began her piano studies at age of 3. Her musical talent is not surprising given her rich musical heritage. Her mother, principle harpist of the National Opera, was her first teacher; after immigrating to the United States, she was taught by her father, a well-respected and renowned artist in China who performed for former President Nixon. She eventually began working with her uncle, Fei-Ping Hsu, Gold Medallist in the Arthur Rubinstein International Competition. "We worked a lot on tone and phrasing. His musical expectations inspired my technique to move into unknown territory. Every technical exercise was in service to communicating musical intent. As I was constantly asked to imagine more contrast and more nuances, I began to develop more color in my playing and a musical conviction that comes from careful study."
It is fascinating to hear what she has to say about her theory studies and how it impacted her musical growth. "Studying theory with Xu Jing-Xing in Beijing was a vital part of my education. With private one-hour weekly lessons, I finished all my college theory requirements before age 8, when I left for the United States. Learning theory at such an early age has been a tremendous help to me in my musical understanding."
Hsing-ay relates how she felt about the piano as a child: "The piano was my only toy. I spent all my time making up stories on the keyboard--improvising. My mom had read a great deal about child education. As a result, although she demanded thorough technical training, she also put a lot of creativity into her methods. Even exercises were a game--she competed with me an octave above in `who can avoid playing a wrong note.' My accuracy improved in no time." Citing the benefits of a performing role model within her family, she said, "My dad was a very engaging performer who drew audiences in with his passion. I absorbed a lot of that as our family toured around American churches on fundraising trips for a Christian college." Practicing was never a chore for Hsing-ay. "I had a natural love for it, so I didn't mind the work as much as others may have. I practiced three hours a day from age 6 and five hours a day from age 14 while in high school."
Salutatorian of her graduating class at James Caldwell High School (JCHS) in Caldwell, New Jersey, she notes, "I was especially honored when chosen by my fellow students for the JCHS Spirit Award," an award presented in recognition of her spirit of pursuing excellence, as well as her involvement in the school community. She followed in her father's footsteps by continuing her musical education at the Juilliard School, where she studied piano with Herbert Stessin. "Juilliard has a reputation for being competitive, but Mr. Stessin was a caring professor who cared about all aspects of his students' lives, and to this day remains a mentor. He used to make cassettes of good performances for me so that I could study them." She completed her graduate degree in piano at Yale University, working with pianist Claude Frank. "I first heard Mr. Frank perform at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, where I was a Performing Fellow. I turned pages for him when he performed the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata for Viola and Piano; everyone must hear his Schubert. It was so special and melted from his being into our hearts."
In the ensuing years, she has participated in a wide range of competitions and been the recipient of many awards. These achievements have helped her gain international recognition. Her first competition was the 1989 Young Keyboard Artists Association International Piano Competition. "At age 11, I was too young to be very nervous. When I realized that, as part of the prize, I was awarded a concerto appearance at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, I experienced more excitement than ever before." She went on to win a top prize in the 1993 Stravinsky Awards International Piano Competition, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts Artist Recognition Talent Search (highest honor) in 1995, the prestigious Gilmore Young Artist Award in 1997 and second prize in the 1996 William Kapell International Piano Competition. Ms. Hsu was the 2000 Juilliard William Petschek Debut Pianist and is also the 2001 recipient of a McCrane Foundation Artist Grant. As a 1995 United States Presidential Scholar of the Arts, she was awarded a USA Gold Medallion by President William J. Clinton at the White House. Beijing Times noted that she was the first honoree born in China to receive this American honor.
Making her stage debut at age 4, performing has always been a part of her life. After she appeared with the Baltimore Symphony playing the Brahms D-Minor Concerto, the Washington Post review stated that her performance was "full of power, authority and self-assurance." She also has performed on National Public Radio's "Performance Today," at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, and in Beijing, Prague, Kromeriz, Shanghai and Taipei, as well as countless venues throughout the United States. Engagements in the coming year include performances with the Pacific Symphony (California) and the Norwalk Symphony (Connecticut), and solo appearances at the University of Florida and in Taipei. She also is in the process of recording a compact disc of the Barber Piano Concerto.
Asked what advice she would have for other young pianists who want to launch a performing career, she replied, "Focus on becoming one with the music. The rest will follow." She offered the following thoughts about competitions and having the right attitude, "The important factor is timing. It's a challenge to enter a competition, finding that perfect time when you feel ready. There's always the danger of having a bad experience. I once had a student who cried after playing an audition badly. There are risks in every endeavor. The important lesson is to be able to get on to the next goal." Although her performing schedule keeps her very busy, Ms. Hsu has enjoyed taking on a few private students. "Teaching is an absolute joy when there is good two-way communication between teacher and student." She also likes serving as an adjudicator for student competitions.
Hsing-ay lives with her husband, Daniel Kellogg, a composer and adjunct faculty member at the University of Connecticut. "He has been a influence on my contemporary musical understanding. I commissioned a solo composition from him before our marriage for the 1998 Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. From that experience, I gained a new connection to the inner workings of composition." When not busy with professional commitments, her favorite pastime is going to the ballet. "There is something so freeing to watch physical motion in space. In piano performance I can only make the illusion of motion through space, but in ballet that experience is an actual event."
When you watch Hsing-ay perform, you will see the influence of choreography in her playing, the fluidity in her musical gestures that enables her to effortlessly project the emotional intent of the music.
Catch the "Rising Stars" Concert Saturday, March 16, 8:00 P.M., in the Regency Ballroom at the Hyatt Hotel during the 2002 MTNA National Conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Gail Berenson, NCTM is professor of piano and chair of the keyboard division at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. She chairs the MTNA National Conference Committee.