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Joel Fan: Musical Mixologist

September 6, 2010

San José’s Le Petit Trianon Theatre is the venue for pianist Joel Fan’s concert on Saturday, Sept. 11. If you don’t know Fan’s work, he’s an award-winning performer who effortlessly plays compositions ranging from the traditional to the modern. After earning his undergraduate degree from Harvard and a master’s in piano performance from the Peabody Conservatory, he’s gone on to perform on world stages, collaborate with Yo-Yo Ma on the Silk Road Ensemble and in performances at Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center, commission new pieces of piano repertoire, and release two CDs that debuted on the Billboard Classical Top 10. The concert in San José promises to be a great mix of old and new pieces from composers hailing from such diverse locales as Brazil, Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S.

You’re coming to San José; have you been there before?

Yes, I have. I like San José. I remember two things: that is actually has a town square you drive around, and that there was very good Japanese food.

I like the whole area. I love the area around Monterey especially.

Have you been further down the coast, through Big Sur?

No. I’ve been north from Los Angeles as far as Santa Barbara. Isn’t it dangerous, though? Couldn’t you drive off a cliff, like that doctor in Los Angeles? Did you hear about that?

I did read that. It’s easier to drive than you would think, but you really can’t be tweeting a photo of your dog while you drive it. But do try to get down there.

I will. It sounds beautiful.

What do you have planned for the concert?

Listen to the Music

Samples from "West of the Sun: Music
of the Americas

Nazareth: Vem cá, Branquinha

Barber: Piano Sonata, Allegro con spirito

It’s a wonderfully — I don’t want to say, eclectic; I don’t like that term — but it is a program which touches on the contemporary and modern, as well as the classic. I’m doing stuff from [my CD] West of the Sun, a Brazilian tango by Ernesto Nazareth, and Alma Brasileira by Heitor Villa-Lobos. I’m also doing Troubled Water, which is based on the spiritual Wade in the Water. It’s by a black female composer, Margaret Bonds, which is really unusual to find. La Nuit du Destin, from [my other solo CD] World Keys, is contemplative meditations. There is Sonata Op. 110 by Beethoven. Then there are the three final pieces. Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5 is an explosion of color. Schoenberg’s Op. 11 has no set key and is strikingly beautiful. It was groundbreaking, intellectually. And then there’s Chopin’s Sonata in B-flat Minor.

When did you first start to play?

When I was 5. At age 11, I played with the New York Philharmonic. There were competitions for kids, which I won, and I played Mozart’s Concert in A Minor, [K.] 488. I looked around Avery Fisher Hall and thought, This is great.

One funny thing about concert halls: When you’re in the audience, you think that it’s a huge hall. On stage, looking at the audience, you think it’s not that big. Carnegie Hall looks smaller. It makes sense. In order for the hall to be good, the distance between the performers and the audience should be as efficient as possible. A performer has to be as close as possible to the audience so it’s a one-on-one experience.

Why did you choose Harvard for your undergraduate work?

No one has ever asked me that. I don’t know. … I had friends going there and I got an early acceptance in December. I never applied anywhere else. I loved it there. My sister (who is younger) went there, as well.

It was a great choice. One of my teachers, Leon Kirchner, who passed away, wrote his last work, a sonata, for me.

You have been called a “Champion of New Music.” What direction do you see contemporary classical music, especially piano repertoire, going?

First, I think it’s not really contemporary as a separate thing. It’s part of a continuum — we have one hundred years of contemporary music. I think what should be called contemporary is what has been composed in the past five years. Music composed before that should be part of the regularly performed “classics,” if it’s good music.

We had a period where the trend was toward violent atonality, but things go in and out of favor. It’s not based on the quality of the work; it’s based on trends. You may have someone who is a wonderful composer and is not “in trend.”

As performers, we don’t need to take sides. We can play what we like and it will come across to the audience.

How did your involvement with the Silk Road Ensemble come about?

Ten years ago, at Harvard. It was wonderful to witness the birth of something groundbreaking. Now, it’s still groundbreaking, but it’s been accepted and proven.

My solo albums were inspired by this experience [World Keys was released in 2006; West of the Sun in 2009].

If not the piano, what other instrument do you think you would play?

Drums! One of my dreams is to learn to play a real drum set. It has power, and it’s what makes a rock song. Maybe one day I will get a drum set. I keep looking.

If you hadn’t been a musician, what do you think you would be doing?

I’d be a race-car driver. It takes concentration, and there’s the thrill.

You’d probably feel more confident about driving Big Sur, then.

Well, the race-car circuit is flat, but yeah, I’d probably have good driving skills.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I pretty much like what most musicians like: food, wine, drink, being with friends. I’m usually doing research and working on new ideas.

What are you listening to these days?

I love my label; Reference Recordings is awesome, and they send me releases. I’ve been listening to Mike Garson’s Jazz Hat. It’s just wonderful. If things had been different, I would have liked to have learned some serious jazz music. There’s such great virtuosity.

Marianne Lipanovich is a writer and editor based in Redwood City. A gardening expert, she is a lifelong music lover, having learned to read music before she learned to read.