Ottawa’s Claudia Chan enjoys living in the present moment. Winner of the Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition and prize-winner of the prestigious Orléans International Competition, her successes in contemporary piano performance paved the way for her musical career. Apart from cross-collaborations in theatre and dance, workshopping with the likes of composers Helmut Lachenmann and Unsuk Chin, and touring 20th-century and modern works with her quartet BRuCH — with a stop inside a German castle — she is also solo artist-in-residence at France’s Fondation Royaumont for contemporary music until 2020.
Chan performs with Sinfonia Toronto on March 3, and leads a contemporary music masterclass for piano students at the University of Toronto on March 7. Afterwards, she will give performances at the Eastman School of Music, Ottawa New Music Creators concert series and the Manhattan School of Music. Her last Toronto appearance was with Benjamin Bowman at last year’s 21C Festival.
On the phone with Ludwig van Toronto, one could catch a whiff of a German accent in Chan’s speech. We discussed her other takeaways from her eight fruitful years in Germany thus far, distilled into a blueprint for musicians who are also interested in a contemporary music career.
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What was the turning point that led you to new music?
CC: Professionally, it was [winning] the Eckhardt-Gramatté Competition. But my special interest for new music started in Ottawa with Elaine Kruse: she taught me for almost 10 years before I moved to study with John Perry at the Glenn Gould School.
[Kruse] was the one who first brought me to work with Canadian, living composers. I got to know contemporary music as a real, important part of my repertoire, and not putting it on a level below anything else.
And outside of E-Gré?
CC: Around a year before I did E-Gré, I had a personal crisis starting at the end of my second year: I wasn’t actively hearing my own playing — comments from listeners wouldn’t line up with my own perception of my playing. I was horrified — I couldn’t trust my own ears. I had to change completely my way of playing; otherwise, I couldn’t go on like this.
Did you find that classical music studies got to be regressive at a certain point?
CC: It was a regression in my involvement in contemporary music. With John Perry, there was much more of a classical training – it interrupted the flow of new music study, but it’s helped with contemporary stuff that came afterwards.
Mr. Perry was sometimes a little bit at a loss with me with the [contemporary] pieces I was bringing to class. I did my Bach and Brahms and Beethoven with him, and then I would bring the repertoire I was interested in looking at. So it wasn’t always the best fit for him in those terms.
When I went to Europe to study, I hadn’t yet been exposed to the roots of European contemporary music. I got retrained then in the literature of contemporary music that I’d been trying to tackle in North America.
How did you get the idea to study in Europe?
CC: I’d heard from quite a few people that it was a very interesting place for contemporary music. And that’s where Pierre-Laurent Aimard was teaching; I also studied with Florence Millet for my Master’s in Cologne. It ended up being the perfect place: I find there’s a lot of respect for the arts in Germany in particular and Europe in general.
Cologne, in particular, is a big centre for new music. There are lots of flourishing young ensembles as well as three big classical orchestras and the opera company.
And you picked up German in the process!
CC: At the beginning, I was really lost in German. I didn’t speak it for the first six months, and then all of a sudden, just by being around the German language, it somehow seeped in. Then it went quickly — now I feel very comfortable in German; in a way, almost as good as English. Somehow it feels like a language that’s very close to me even though I haven’t known it for that long. Now, whenever I try to speak French, I speak German instead.
Knowing German has probably opened up so many doors for you!
CC: Yeah, it’s fantastic! I can’t say if knowing German is better than knowing French or Spanish, but one of the greatest things is just to be able to read texts, or markings, or letters from composers in German: you understand it in a different way than if it were translated.
There’s something about Germany that has inspired hundreds and hundreds of great art, especially music. It’s nice to be able to get close to that spirit through the language.
A slightly more sensitive question: what’s it like being of Asian background in Germany or Europe?
CC: In terms of how it’s affected my career, I don’t know, because audiences wouldn’t have told me that. In a way, there are a lot of people with Asian background working in Germany as well. Sometimes it’s surprising how integrated I feel and maybe speak — people seem surprised when we talk and I’m actually Canadian but am of Chinese background and speak German — the mixture still confuses a lot of people. But I don’t know if there’s an advantage or a disadvantage to it; the fact is, it’ll become much more common and what I like is it’s not so focused on here. That’s a very good thing in that way.
What are the realities of a contemporary music career?
CC: Moving from piece to piece is a necessity of doing new music. Being a new music pianist means you’re often asked to premiere pieces — you’re constantly working to present new programs. It’s unfortunate — I think we should have more performances of the same thing, but there’s so much new music being created that it’s also, to use the German expression, “Schade [it’s a shame],” that we don’t get to hear all of it – for classical pianists, it’s ok to tour a year or half a year with the same program; it almost never happens in new music.
With new music, you get to (in a way) cut some corners. I’m working on Brahms right now, and I spend half of my practicing time wondering what he really wanted there – just judging by what he wrote on the page, what he meant. In new music, I just go and ask the composer. But ideally you have both — you have contact with the composer, you have direct input about what they want but also enough time and enough performances of each piece that you become very personally involved.
In terms of chamber music, it’s a very normal part of the job — and very rewarding. I’d say half of my concerts end up being with different artists.
Did your career develop organically, or was it methodically planned out?
CC: It’s continuous — it takes a lot of thought and planning. I still am my own manager, so I do a lot of my own planning for projects, and contracts with composers and presenters.
Did you find music, or did music find you?
CC:[laughs] I was in the right place, being, probably in front of the piano when I didn’t want to be. Sometime during my tweens when the bug finally really bit, and I realized — it’s not just learning notes for the next RCM exam, but something bigger that could become a big part of my life. I’ll probably do that for my kids as well and see if the bug bites. And if not, it’s completely okay.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.