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In the Club with: Wei-Han Wu

For our fifth episode, we are happy to welcome Duo Axis - flutist Zach Sheets and pianist Wei-Han Wu. Welcome, Wei-Han!

Tell us about a recent musical experience that you particularly enjoyed.

In March I had a unique opportunity to join the Malmӧ Symphony Orchestra in Sweden for their Stravinsky Festival. There were four different concerts dedicated to Stravinsky’s works, from the more known pieces like Petrushka and Firebird to the lesser performed, like In Memoriam Dylan Thomas and Agon. Out of all the works I was probably happiest to have had the chance to play and perform Les noces, a 25-minute work for 4 pianos, percussion, soloists and choir. This piece has been on my bucket list for years. It’s one thing to listen to this piece from the audience (which is awesome), and another to be surrounded by riotous percussion sounds, the soprano screaming repeated high Bs, and a tenor shouting Russian as fast as he could, while pounding away with three other pianists. I will never forget it. I had to bow out of the last Stravinsky concert because of the sudden European travel ban due to the Coronavirus pandemic. I managed to snag a last-minute plane ticket and got back in the US just hours before the ban went into was wild. It’s odd to think that was two months ago. 

Who are some composers or ensembles you’ve been enjoying listening to lately?

I just finished digitizing all my CDs from boxes that have been sitting around for ages, and it’s been interesting to go through some old “gems” that I haven’t listened to for awhile. I listened through some pop and rock albums I bought in high school for nostalgic reasons, of which I won’t share here because A. it will out my old age, and B. I had dubious tastes then. Here is some other interesting music that I dug up and enjoyed:

  1. Alarm Will Sound’s recording of Tehillim by Steve Reich

  2. The '92 vs '02 Collection (EP) by Prefuse73

  3. The original soundtrack + various artists for the motion picture Girl, Interrupted (actually check out the songs before you judge ;)

  4. Music by a Taiwanese indie band called 糯米糰 “nuo-mi-tuan” or Sticky Rice (糰, “rice ball”, is a pun on the word 團, a band or group). They were active briefly in the early 2000s, and made some parodies of pop culture and pop artists. It was introduced to me by a dear friend who has since passed away.

Is there a moment or experience that got you hooked on contemporary music?

I got hooked on new music in sophomore year of college when I started playing works written by my friends, who were undergrad compositions students. While my piano teacher was frustrated that I didn’t focus on practicing my Chopin and Beethoven, I felt exhilarated to play fresh works that had no “baggage” or tradition to follow. For me, new music has always been about creating something with your friends, people you trust and with whom perhaps you share other experiences together outside of music. I don’t think there’s more honest music making than working directly with the source, aka the composer. 

Are there any current trends in contemporary music that you’re particularly excited about? Anything you hope to see change in the future?

I am excited that for the past couple years ensembles and presenters in the new music community and granting institutions are actively engaging (or beginning to engage) questions of diversity and representation programming, in a (hopefully) meaningful way. By being constantly mindful of them in my own musical practice, I hope I am also beginning to do my part as well.

Without elaborating too much, I am slightly concerned about what feels like, to me, an accelerated hamster wheel of constant commissions and premieres in order for ensembles to stay relevant and successful, and the sustainability of this practice. 

Are there any unique challenges you find working as a pianist in an ensemble setting vs. as a soloist?

For me as a pianist it’s tough to maintain communication with the other musicians in a new music ensemble sometimes. That may sound very abstract, but I think it’s actually a very physical thing. Since the piano can do a lot, I suspect composers are sometimes tempted to throw every extended technique in the book and the kitchen sink at it. When the pianist is busy crawling in and out of the big bulky instrument, or stuck in Warrior III pose with the pedal, tucked away in the back of the ensemble and facing sideways, communication is... tricky for someone who is not particularly tall or in shape, like me.

Are there any extended piano techniques - or traditional ones, for that matter! - that you think are particularly effective or interesting?

I still never get tired of slowly scraping a cassette case, or the little plastic pencil sharpener case on piano strings. I would just like to remind composers of the piano’s lyrical qualities and capabilities, and maybe consider employing those qualities here and there ;)

Outside of music, what are some other types of art/media/entertainment that you particularly enjoy?

I have a very big soft spot for video games AND video game music (NERD ALERT), particularly RPGs, though I have to be very careful because I can get lost in them and get no work done. My spouse and I bonded over video games/music when we first met, and it’s part of how we are killing time during the quarantine. 

Thank you for joining us, Wei-Han!

Described as "brilliant" by the Pittsburgh Tribune, pianist Wei-Han Wu has performed in such venues as the Chicago Cultural Center, the Kennedy Center, and Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall. He has been a featured performer at the Tanglewood, Aspen, Castleton, Lake George, and Walla Walla Chamber Music Festivals. Dedicated to the performance and promotion of new music, Mr. Wu is currently pianist for the [Switch~ Ensemble] and performs regularly with Zach Sheets, flutist as Duo Axis. He previously served as pianist for the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and the president of OSSIA New Music.  A member of Pi Kappa Lambda, he is the recipient of a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Juilliard School, the Felicia Montealegre Fellowship from the Tanglewood Music Center, and the Collaborative Piano Fellowship from Bard College. He is currently actively in the D.C. area as pianist for various arts organizations, and as assistant conductor for the National Symphony. Mr. Wu holds degrees from Northwestern, University of Michigan, and the Eastman School of Music.

Photo by Hanna Hurwitz

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