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Interview With Master Pianist, Derek Han

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Interview With Master Pianist, Derek Han

By Ed Bertha

Photography by Michelle Donner

One of the leading American pianists of his generation, Derek Han has dazzled audiences across six continents. Playing private performances for three presidents, his public performances have touched the lives of many, from Milan’s La Scala to New York’s Lincoln Center. Entering Juilliard at an early age he left for Europe upon graduating and soon won the Gold Medal at the Athens International Piano Competition catapulting his career. Beyond live performances Derek has recorded complete concerto cycles of the likes of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. Traveling extensively, Derek and his family made Sarasota home in 2000.

derek-han

What led you to piano?

We had a piano at home that my dad played for about 10 minutes a year at Christmas time, and we all cringed. Eventually my parents decided this was an inefficient use of an expensive piece of furniture. They tried to get my older sister, who was 10 at the time, to take piano lessons, and she didn’t want to. I saw that my parents were just nagging her to do it. Out of pure sibling rivalry, to get one up one her I said, ‘I’ll take piano lessons.’ After my 1st lesson the teacher asked how I liked it and I said, ‘I’m going to become a concert pianist.’ That’s how I started.

Tell us about a watershed moment in your career?

I started taking lessons with a professor at Ohio State University and ended up winning a local competition to play with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra. That led to attending a symphony later in the year featuring a very famous pianist named Gina Bachauer. I received an invitation to the reception and was introduced to her. She asked if I would like to play something for her. I did, and she had me play a couple more pieces. She said, ‘Next year I won’t be coming to Columbus, but would like to hear you play again.’ Guess what? That next year I received a call from her to play. I did and she said, ‘I think you should change teachers.’

Gina asked me to go play for Ilona Kabos. Ilona Kabos was so well known she didn’t even teach at Juilliard. Juilliard would put her up in a hotel in New York, have Steinway bring in a piano and she would teach from her suite. Talk about intimidation. So I played for her. When I finished she wouldn’t say anything other than, ‘Play something else for me.’ Then all of a sudden she said, ‘All right darling next week you bring…,’ and she gave me a list of items. Suddenly I found myself in the Juilliard pre-college division studying with her. I was placed into Juilliard pre-college without an audition, without an application, because she called the president and said, ‘I will teach this young boy.’ So from age ten to fourteen I commuted on weekends to New York City, the four or five months she was there. So that’s how I became a musician.

What do you find challenging about playing piano?

The challenging aspect of playing the piano is having the time to allow things to mature within you. It’s a very unusual experience when you start playing pieces you haven’t played for twenty, twenty five years. You realize that with time, through your experience as a performing artist, many of the things that were problems somehow work themselves out. In other words the music starts to mature within you, without you even realizing it. Over time you gain a different perspective, like a fine wine needs to rest. When it is ripe it will make sense.

Winning the Gold Medal at the Athens International Piano Competition.

I went to Europe after graduating from Juilliard in 1976. Winning the gold medal in 1977 gave my career a huge boost and I began to play in Europe a great deal. The award generated exposure and many opportunities to play. I thought I would stay in Europe a year or two and ended up staying twenty years, playing a lot of concerts there. It was certainly something that changed my career.

Describe your style.

I try to be as faithful as possible to what I believe the composer wanted. As a concert pianist I look at my role as the medium between the composer and the audience. I try to transmit to the audience what I believe the composer wants us to feel and hear. I always am in awe of what composers do. They have something in their head, take a blank sheet of paper and by putting inscriptions on it they give us these sensations of great joy, great sadness, great pain, great exhilaration. That for me is really a miracle, generating an emotional experience for the performer and the audience. For me as a musician I try to recreate as authentically as possible what I feel the composer wrote.

What goes through your mind leading up to a performance?

Right before you go out on stage you focus on so many little areas. You set little markers in your head on things you need to be careful of. Then when you sit on stage you simply let the music take over. Everything else sort of recedes into the background. You focus into your own world with the music. It’s like your own little communion with the composer.
 
Is there a difference in preparing a live recording?

Yes it’s very different. In a recording session you get together, the light goes on and it’s like be inspired. You’re making something that will live forever. You can start something and in the middle of it all of a sudden the producer jumps in, ‘We need to change….’ It’s like stop, rewind, start over. It’s very hard to turn on and off. You’re also working against the clock.

The hardest thing in recording is you are in the hands of the producer. Once you’re done the producer gathers all of the takes and develops the first edit to approve, which you receive several months later. They ask, ‘how does this sound?’ It is very difficult to remember what you did months ago. You have to place a great deal of faith in that the producer knows you as a person, as a musician and knows what your style and tastes are.  

What are you looking forward to this year with La Musica?

La Musica is one of the very special times of the year for me as a solo artist as it gives me a chance to play with my colleagues in an intimate setting. It gives me a chance to play with just a handful of colleagues. It is a wonderful change of scenery for many of us who play in La Musica. We really like working very intensely, in a very short period, putting together performances that are unique and alive. It is definitely interesting to see how it evolves with American and European artists and our differing views. It’s like the difference between inches and centimeters, but very special.

All of our rehearsals are open to the public. It’s an opportunity for people who are curious to see how chamber music is prepared. How a performance is prepared. You can come see how we conduct our first reading together. You can see how a piece evolves and how each one of us tries to bring our experience to putting a performance together. The open rehearsals are like a documentary on how a performance gets put together.

What’s next for Derek?

I leave Wednesday for England to go on tour with the English Chamber Orchestra. Were playing five concerts in a week ending in London. Then I return to Sarasota for two days and leave for Vancouver. After that it’s off to China. On average I do seventy to eighty performances a year.

Copyright © 2012 REAL Magazine
Links to this article are encouraged

Photography used under license from La Musica
Photography Copyright © 2012 Michelle Donner

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