The accolades tell part of the story. Reviewers have called his recorded performances “playing on an exalted level” (Fanfare), and “stunningly virtuosic… [with a] sense of spontaneity [that] is often incandescent” (BBC Music Magazine). The New Yorker included his version of Liszt’s Années de Pélérinage, Italie among their “Best Classical Albums of 2001.” His Mendelssohn Sonatas—selected as “Record of the Year” by Stereo Review—became a best-‐seller in the classical piano category.
Live performances continue to play a major role in his life. Mr. Chiu has toured Europe and the U.S. with the Orchestre de Bretagne and Stefan Sanderling. He has played with the Hartford Symphony, Dayton Philharmonic, Kansas City Symphony, Indianapolis Symphony, BBC Scottish Symphony, BBC Concert Orchestra, Estonia National Symphony, China National Symphony, the FOSJE Orquesta in Ecuador, among others. In recital he performs in the world's most prestigious halls including the Berlin Philharmonic, Kioi and Suntory Halls in Tokyo, Lincoln Center in New York and Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Mr. Chiu's musical partners include Joshua Bell, Pierre Amoyal, Elmar Oliveira, Gary Hoffman, David Krakauer, Matt Haimovitz and the St. Lawrence, Shanghai and Daedalus string quartets. He has worked with many composers, including George Crumb, Frederic Rzewski, Bright Sheng, Gao Ping and David Benoit.
But recordings have always represented a strikingly unique aspect of his work. His most recent project is the forthcoming Yamaha recording, Frederic Chiu: Distant Voices, which includes piano music of Claude Debussy and Gao Ping. The recording is the fruit of the pianist’s long relationship with Yamaha, which began in 1988, when he was living in Paris and practiced regularly in the company’s Parisian studios.
“I was one of the first people to buy a GranTouch,” he reveals. “I saw a prototype made for Sviatoslav Richter, who needed a practice piano for traveling. I practiced exclusively on one for years, using it as a silent keyboard for low-‐volume practicing—which pushes your muscles—and employing earphones to develop right brain/left brain coordination. Over the years, I also witnessed the development of the CFX, an amazing instrument.”
This new project includes some remarkable techniques, drawing on Debussy’s rainbow of tonal colors, and Gao Ping’s innovative use of vocalizations, whistling, breathing, and more. Mr. Ping, says Frederic Chiu, “makes the audience more aware of the sounds of their environment. And this is why Gao Ping is the natural companion to Debussy on this album.” Both composers, he says, base their art on profound, focused listening.
Technological advances over the years, explains Mr. Chiu, made Distant Voices possible in an amazingly short time. “In just three days we were able to produce an audio product, a video shoot, and a Disklavier program,” he reports. It will be made available on Yamaha’s Disklavier website so that anyone with a membership and Disklavier piano will have “live” access to the performance on their own instrument.
Other recent releases include Liszt’s arrangement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Saint-‐Saën’s Carnival of the Animals (with storyteller David Gonzalez), and Hymns and Dervishes—music by Gurdjieff and de Hartmann (out on Centaur in early 2016). The latter demonstrates the pianist’s ongoing adventurousness.
Mr. Chiu’s interest in the mystical Gurdjieff was sparked by philosophical pursuits, encouraged by a book written by Gurdjieff student Thomas de Hartmann about his life with his teacher. “I read it,” he reports Mr. Chiu, “realized he was also a composer, and found a bunch of scores in the Library of Congress.” Gurdjieff’s music had been notated and arranged by de Hartmann, a student at the St. Petersburg Conservatory when Prokofiev was also there. In an effort to do justice to the music, Mr. Chiu began studying Middle Eastern scales. “I consulted Julian Weiss, who started a Middle Eastern musical ensemble called Al Kindi, and he gave me a lot of insights.” The result is a recording that uses both standard “equal temperament,” and alternate tunings, which give the music “a sense of inspiration and expiration. We had a tuner adjust the piano before each piece,” he explains. Recreating the effect in live performance is accomplished using a Yamaha keyboard that allows for changes of intonation on individual pitches.
Frederic Chiu’s early career followed traditional avenues. His awards and competition wins included the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, Juilliard’s Petscheck Award, and wins at contests run by the Music Teachers National Association and the Beethoven Foundation (now the American Pianists Association). He was a “non-‐winner” of the 1993 Van Cliburn Competition, where his elimination from the finals caused an uproar in the press.
“They were very supportive afterward,” recalls Mr. Chiu. “They had me back in Ft. Worth every year for eight or ten years, playing, going to schools, doing outreach. I was very happy doing that.”
Yet, being out of the competition circuit gave him the freedom to explore music that was not “the core repertoire” for those contests. That included transcriptions—his first foray into recording—and the music of Prokofiev, for which he has been acclaimed.
Another area of interest involves the intricacies of the performing experience. “In my workshops,” he says, “I deal with the balance between body, mind and heart. I’ve done a lot of thinking and analysis from a pianist’s perspective, especially using ‘affect theory,’ as developed by Dr. Silvan Tomkins”.
What is next on the horizon? No doubt there will be ongoing collaborations, such as his work with Shakespearean actor Brian Bedford, hip-‐hop artist Socalled, and psychologist/writer/clown Howard Buten. And provocative audience-‐participation projects, like his ongoing series, Classical Smackdown (ClassicalSmackdown.com). As always, Mr. Chiu will also find time for writing, painting and cooking, and leading activities at Beechwood Arts, an arts immersion non-‐profit in Connecticut, where he currently makes his home.