Rachel Breen
Rachel Breen

At the age of 10, pianist Rachel Breen was slated to play in a Bay Area festival when its director became distraught at hearing that, up until then, she had been self-taught. That interaction prompted her to begin studying with her first piano teacher. Fast forward 15 years and several teachers later, and Breen is making her San Francisco International Piano Festival debut, where she will play alongside one of her former teachers, Sharon Mann.

Jeffrey LaDeur, the festival’s founder and artistic director, said he first met Breen at 16 and that she was already playing at a professional level: “I feel I’ve gotten to watch Rachel explode onto the international scene.” He also described how the tenets of legacy and continuity are two themes of the festival’s fifth anniversary, with a new slate of master classes added to the schedule and solo recitals by Breen, Jan Bartoš (who’s making his West Coast debut here playing Czech masterpieces), and Bobby Mitchell.

With a celebration of the 300th anniversary of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier setting the tone on opening night, Aug. 18, Breen will play selections from the piece before a world premiere inspired by those famous preludes and fugues. Breen said, “I think Bach feels like my native language, just because for the first five years of playing piano, I only played Bach.”

Jeffrey LaDeur
Jeffrey LaDeur | Credit: Carlin Ma

The festival closes on Aug. 28 with a finale showcasing music influenced by, and composers impacted by, this classic piece, including Dmitri Shostakovich, the Beatles, and Nina Simone. “We’re passing on what we got from our teachers,” said LaDeur. “The final piece of that is the young artists who are the living embodiment of the legacy.”

Breen speaks with excitement about teaming up with her former teacher Sharon Mann, who deftly harnessed her student’s stubbornness as a younger artist “with determination and patience.” For Breen, music at its core is about empathy. “When you experience music, you recognize, without trying, that there is a fundamental connection between you and another human being via a person who has created the art,” she said. “So, the composer and the performer who is understanding and performing the art for you and everyone else in the audience — [they’re] experiencing it along with you, and everyone throughout history has experienced and appreciated the music and therefore allowed it to continue.”

For her solo recital, Breen has curated the selections, pairing works like Schumann’s Arabeske with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor, Op. 111. She described the sonata’s feeling of balance as “the darkest place in human existence, which is then transformed into the most powerful sense of peace that you can reach. The only thing I could do to preface the sonata was to put something extremely pure and extremely naive but also optimistic [before it].” She likened her curation process to hanging paintings in a museum, providing a “variety of human lenses of seeing the world” through a set of “disparate but deeply connected filters.”

This can also be seen in the placement of Nikolai Medtner’s Sonata, Op. 22, in the middle of the program. “Medtner was a huge fan of Beethoven, especially late Beethoven. And I think you can absolutely hear that in his music, in his experimental structures, like clarity of ideas, interest in counterpoint — there are a lot of aspects of his writing that feel connected to Beethoven,” said Breen. “But something that feels incredibly different from Beethoven is that, no matter what piece you’re listening to, you can feel that Medtner as a human being is a fundamental pessimist. When you listen to Beethoven, you can feel that Beethoven is just at his core so deeply optimistic. So, I find that really fascinating.”

See Rachel Breen at the San Francisco International Piano Festival kickoff concert with selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier on Aug. 18 or in her solo recital on Aug. 21. Learn more about the other artists on the schedule, see all of the programming, and buy tickets for in-person and livestreaming concerts on the festival’s website.