Wei Luo, blissful individuality at the piano
14 August 2019
(interviewed by Ilona Oltuski)
"Wei is a young lady now, who deserves to go very far. She is not only a wonderful musical powerhouse but a brilliant thinker, who goes way beyond the score and brings her own ideas to everything she approaches,” says Gary Graffman, Wei Luo’s trusted mentor since she arrived at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music at the age of 13, chaperoned by her mother. Under the tutelage of the legendary Graffman, who still joins the Curtis faculty about twice a month, and the esteemed pedagogue Robert McDonald, the currently 20-year-old sophomore continues her studies at Curtis towards her bachelor’s degree.
“I can also play for both of them anytime in New York City,” she says with a sense of independence that she appears to enjoy very much. “Gary is like a grandpa to me, always concerned about my wellbeing. He often checks in on me, and so does Mr. McDonald,” she mentions. “A few years back, when my mom had to be in China and I was travelling alone for concerts in Europe, it was lonely and I did not have an easy time managing on my own, but they both were in contact with me all the time,” she shares, adding, “it’s wonderful to have counselors like this in your life who care, and who get you.” Now Luo lives in the dormitories and enjoys having a roommate, preparing meals, and learning new repertoire. There is still no TV in her room – she does not really have time for it anyhow. Recently, she started to swim every day to keep fit and maintain her physical stamina, which she understands is important for a concertizing career.
Luo was born in Shenzhen, in the Southern part of China, where she started piano lessons with Kang Yongze at age five and gave her debut recital in Hong Kong only a year after. At age nine, she moved with her mother to Shanghai, attending the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, to study with Tang Zhe until she was twelve years old. During that time, Luo made her orchestral debut at age ten with the Shanghai Philharmonic under its artistic director Muhai Tang. Winner of numerous competitions in China, Luo also claimed first prize in the 11th Chopin International Competition for young Pianists in Poland, and the 2nd Rachmaninov International Piano Competition for Young Pianists in Frankfurt, both in 2010.
Luo is an expressive force of nature at the piano. She is an artist of great sensitivity and boundless virtuosity. On stage, it takes her mere moments to bond with her audience, and her distinct interpretations have won her critics’ admiration as well. In 2015, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote: “Equally intriguing were those moments when she took you so far inside the music that your ears left behind previous points of reference, partly because she immerses herself in the music with an intensity that borders on madness.” In 2018, she won the Gilmore Young Artist award.
It was not always easy, however, living up to the expectations that came with her great potential. “When it became clear that I was supposed to continue my studies in the US, my mom only applied to Curtis. She said, ‘It’s the best place and the only one I want for you,’” says Luo, recalling her mother’s words, admitting to feeling a big responsibility put on her shoulders to succeed in her auditions. Curtis not only accepted Luo, but rented an apartment for her and her mother, complete with a grand piano to practice undisturbed at home while Luo was attending High School; her father came for regular visits.
“The nice thing about Curtis always has been the individual attention I was able to give to each of my students,” adds Graffman, under whose tutelage an almost unequaled share of unique talents has developed into piano superstars, including Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. Graffman marvels at his student’s accomplishments as he listens on his iPhone to a recording of Luo’s latest recording that she has sent him.
Meeting Luo, it is her ubiquitous motivation and her sheer joy that stand out—an inspired curiosity and marvel of music ignited from her earliest childhood. She recalls some of her earliest musical memories in Kindergarten, when her teacher would play piano for the class, and decisive moments playing concerts, which she performed from age six onwards; she remembers her first solo concert, playing Mozart and Clementi, which moved the audience to tears. These were moments of absolute happiness for Luo, and she says: “When I was younger, I was not very outgoing. I was more in my own world, but that changed when I started to perform more concerts. Communications is everything, when you are on stage.”
The happiness she feels when performing was a dominant factor in her decision to pursue a career in music. “I could have chosen a more academic road, I had the grades and my parents always left me the options to decide what I wanted, but the way performing makes me feel is so special, I would not want to be without that sensation of deep fulfillment I only have after a concert,” she addsLuo has recently signed on to Decca Gold, whose roster of artists also includes Lang Lang and Daniil Trifonov among its young icons, and her debut album will be released on August 30th. The first of a series of planned recordings for the brand, it features works by Haydn, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Shostakovich on August 30th.
Simply titled Wei Luo, it was recorded by Dan Shores at the DiMenna Center in New York City last July and showcases different musical landscapes, all inherent facets of Luo’s musical personality. In the album’s liner notes, David Screbnik lets Luo speak for herself. About the Haydn Piano Sonata in E flat, representing her interest in the classical era, she says: “It’s very symphonic. There are so many instrumental sounds in the piece. He’s trying to imitate the horn, clarinet and violin. As a pianist, I feel I have a lot of room to express the colors and the moods.”
“The album begins with another piece with orchestral connections, Ravel’s solo piano version of La Valse, where Luo deliberately seeks to create the sounds of the winds, brass, and strings at the keyboard to recreate Ravel’s array of colors and textures. She even adds notes from the orchestral score to further evoke the sounds of the varied instruments,” describes Screbnik, noticing that the Russian repertoire on the recording, Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7, two Shostakovich Prelude and Fugues, and Rodion Shchedrin’s Two Polyphonic Pieces, reflect Luo’s special passion, which started even before she could play the piano. Luo says, “when I was young, my mom took me to see Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty and all those beautiful Tchaikovsky ballets. I was really attracted to that style—the melodies, and the earthy and tragic qualities speak very strongly to me.”
Luo’s future plans are committed to exploring more of the less often played repertoire, “that includes more contemporary works, but also even some of Schubert’s works are rarely performed, like his Three Piano Pieces, Opus D.946,” she says. “As I am growing up, I realize more and more what a powerful and exciting gift it is to be able to connect through music much more directly than though language,” she says. “Playing piano, we are always after a certain expression, a special mood, or a certain sound, and it does not always come easily. Sometimes I am moved by my own playing and that is truly essential, since if I am not moved myself, how can I move the audience? It’s like an actor, you really have to live the role. But when it does happen, it’s that magic moment, when everything comes together.”
On January 31, 2019 WQXR launched ’19 for 19,’ its inaugural annual list celebrating some of the most exciting classical artists on the planet. This event at The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space in New York City brought together members of the new group for a unique and spectacular concert. See below: