Heart and soul of a budding concert pianist

ERIC Lu, 20, won the top prize at the 19th Leeds International Piano Competition this September, cementing the start of a career as a professional pianist.

ERIC Lu, 20, won the top prize at the 19th Leeds International Piano Competition this September, cementing the start of a career as a professional pianist.

He’s got a business manager now and has signed a recording deal with Warner Bros. Records. Concerts in London, Paris, Berlin, the US, China and Korea are scheduled in the next two years.

Lu was recently in Shanghai for a recital of the music he played at the Leeds Competition. They included four Schubert impromptus, Chopin’s Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Mozart’s Rondo in A minor and Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor.

“The business side of music is very different from simply playing the music,” Lu said. “I have to deal with different people. This is all new to me, but it is what I always wanted to be ­— a serious pianist. I am excited that it is actually happening.”

Lu was born in Massachusetts of Chinese immigrants. His mother is from Shanghai.

Though neither of his parents is a musician, they both love music and collected hundreds of classical music records at their house.

Lu first showed an interest in the piano at age 4, while watching his elder sister take lessons. A year later, he said he wanted to play the piano, too.

“I was lucky to have great parents who were not pushy but were very supportive,” said Lu.

He started piano studies at age 6 with Dorothy Shi, near Boston. Later, he enrolled at the New England Conservatory Preparatory School, where he studied piano with Alexander Korsantia and A. Ramon Rivera. In 2013 he entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studies under Jonathan Biss and Robert McDonald. He is also a student of Vietnamese pianist Dang Thai Son.

Lu’s talent won global recognition when he took fourth prize at the 17th Chopin International Piano Competition in 2015 ­— one of the youngest pianists ever to win a prize. That opened the doors to concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the Warsaw Philharmonic and the Qatar Philharmonic.

In 2017, he won the International German Piano Award in Frankfurt.

In the final at the Leeds Competition, he performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the Halle Orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner.

Lu took ill before the semi-finals, which required the contestants complete a 75-minute program. He had a high fever and splitting headache that make practice barely possible for two days. It was not until five hours before the performance that he finally felt clear-headed enough to perform, and he practiced straight through until the evening performance.

“My fingers were not in good shape,’ he said. “They were still stiff when I walked onto the stage. But, miraculously, my body seemed to know that it was a very important moment for me and the illness melted away. At the end of the 75-minute program, my mind was completely toasted.”

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 is an extremely challenging piece musically, technically and intellectually, according to Lu. He spent a lot of time thinking about it as he practiced it over and over for a year before the competition.

“It is my favorite of the five Beethoven concertos.” said Lu. “It’s so lyrical. It does not have the edges of some other Beethoven compositions.”

The second movement is his special favorite. It depicts a tragic story, with the orchestra and the piano having a dialogue.

“The orchestra sounds like a god or a demon, while the piano responds in a most tender, pleading way,” Lu said. “It is very desperate music and overwhelming until the end. But the miracle of Beethoven is that there is no pause into the third movement, and suddenly there is light and joy. It really is a most miraculous piece of music.”

Soon after the competition, Lu recorded the piece with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, which was released by Warner in November.

Lu plans to expand his repertory. He said he loves works by Russian composers like Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev, which are steeped in Russian culture. Even with European composers like Chopin and Schubert, there is much work to be explored.

Faced with more concert dates, Lu said he is trying to choose quality over quantity.

“I certainly want to have a good career,” he said, “but that is not my No. 1 goal. My goal is to be a good musician. Music needs time. I have to live with it and grow with it.”

Now in his fourth year at the Curtis, Lu said he is planning on stay on a bit longer. “There are so many changes happening in my life at the moment,” he explained. “I want to keep something stable.”

He visits Dang Thai Son every a few months, taking along well-prepared works and returning with the feeling that he still has a lot to learn.

“Dang always gives me many suggestions about sounds and details, which help me improve,” said Lu.

Lu said he is proud to be among the Chinese musicians proving that Asians can be as proficient at classical music as Westerners.

And like many young men, Lu is a fan of basketball and football, but he hardly plays himself for fear of injuring his fingers.

“I never regretted choosing music for my life,” he said. “I actually feel very lucky. With music, I am able to travel the world and visit so many places. I am here in Shanghai today because of music. I don’t have any regrets.”

Ti Gong

First Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition in September catapulted Eric Lu, 20, onto the world stage. 

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