Pianist Hsiang Tu knows how to play to an audience, especially when it involves, as he describes it, 50 third-graders. Professor Tu, who currently is on the Virginia Tech faculty and previously taught at Utah Valley University and Snow College, was inspired to curate a recital of short piano works based on animal themes, which has turned out to be a successful venture. This includes producing a YouTube video in collaboration with the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation featuring interviews, in both English and Chinese, and performances of music for The Ivory Menagerie. In 2020, his debut solo album, Bestiary on Ivory, was released through Bridge Records, and received wide praise.
Tu will perform the latest edition of The Ivory Menagerie to close out Bachauer’s marvelous 2021-22 concert series on Friday, April 29, at 7:30 p.m. in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts.
The concert is definitely an event for all family members, with short pieces from famous composers as well as contemporary musicians. This includes a set of three pieces, Endangered Species by Trent Hanna, a composer who is on the Snow College faculty in Utah. The 2015 suite represents the vaquita, pangolin and the Amur leopard.
Tu, a past winner of the Juilliard School Concerto Competition and an internationally known teacher and performer, explains in an interview with The Utah Review how he crowdsourced suggestions from his colleagues. There have been pleasant surprises as he has curated and updated works inspired by the menagerie. “For instance, I learned that Seymour Bernstein was inspired to write The Fly from Bela Bartók’s From the Diary of A Fly,” he adds. Both pieces will be performed in Friday’s concert.
Tu says that he likes to “think outside of the box” in programming this assortment of character pieces. There are no printed program notes. He groups the pieces in terms of similar animal species and talks briefly during the concert not only about the music but also about the animals. “I’ll talk about endangered species and why it is important to have conservation efforts or how flies vomit saliva onto their food to digest it,” he says. “There is a clear narrative about the fly in the Bartók piece, for example. It helps kids grasp what’s going on during the music.” When performing William Bolcom’s Tabby Cat Walk, during the rests in the music, Tu mimics the motions of a cat yawning, stretching and getting sleepy.
The program is truly diverse in style and the period during which a specific piece was composed, spanning from the 18th century to the present. Most eras are represented with the exception of the Classical period, which might strike some as odd even though there were some character pieces that composers wrote during that time. There are rigorous and technically demanding works that would likely be in any international pianist’s repertoire regardless of programmatic themes, such as Liszt’s St. François d’Assise. La prédication aux oiseaux (St. Francis of Assisi, The Sermon to the Birds), Ravel’s Noctuelles (Night Moths), Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet (Bird as Prophet) and the Liszt transcription of Schumann’s Frühlingsnacht (Spring Night).
He opens with a trio of short pieces from the French Baroque period — about the cuckoo, warblers and birds in general, respectively, by Louis-Claude Daquin, François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau. Most famous pieces such as Camille Saint-Saëns’ Le Cygne (The Swan) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee in a Rachmaninoff arrangement are joined by lesser known works such as Amy Beach’s A Hermit Thrush at Eve and Enrique Granados’s Quejas ó la Maja y el Ruiseñor (Laments, or The Maiden and the Nightingale).
There are several pieces by Bolcom, a 20th century composer, including Tabby Cat Walk; Butterflies, hummingbirds; California Porcupine Rag and The Serpent’s Kiss, which comes from a set of four ragtime fantasies in the composer’s The Garden of Eden suite. There also are delightful confections such as Debussy’s Poissons d’or (Goldfish) and Hector Villa-Lobos’ O Gatinho de papelão (Little Cardboard Cat).
For tickets and more information see the Bachauer website.