Saturday, January 27, 2024

Seattle Symphony Celebrates Asia with Quynh Nguyen


INTERVIEW: Quỳnh Nguyễn

Benaroya Hall, Seattle


Sunday, Jan. 28 marks the return of Seattle Symphony’s “Celebrate Asia” concert for its 16th season. The event highlights the city’s all-important dynamic Asian community and features the American premiere of veteran composer Paul Chihara’s Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra “Concerto Fantasy,” performed by award-winning Vietnamese-American pianist Quynh Nguyen. Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor Sunny Xia will helm the performance. 

In the midst of a busy rehearsal schedule, Nguyen took time off to answer some questions about her life, work, and passions.

ERICA MINER: Welcome to Seattle, Quynh! 

QUYNH NGUYEN: Thank you, Erica, thank you for having me.

EM: I've been reading about you and am so impressed at what I've been seeing and listening to. I'm really excited to come to the hall and hear you perform. How's it going so far?

QN: I arrived last night and had a chance to practice on the piano. It is beautiful and I'm really looking forward to coming into the hall tomorrow and rehearsing with the orchestra. This is my first time with the Seattle Symphony, so I'm incredibly honored and humbled to have this opportunity, and really excited as well.

EM: I'm sure the orchestra is excited to have you there. I've known Paul since we were students at Tanglewood, a very long time ago.

QN: Wow, he told me about his time in Tanglewood. That's incredible.

EM: Having listened to your entire recording of Paul’s piano works on Naxos, I’m curious how that association between the two of you first started.

QN: The first piece I heard of Paul's was actually Ami, the piano duet that he wrote for his friend Pascal Rogé and his wife, Ami. I found the music amazing. Beautiful, sparkling and bright and gorgeous melodies and French influence. I’ve always loved French music. Ravel, Debussy. I also studied with Yvonne Loriod-Messiaen. I found Paul's music so fresh and original and gorgeous. So Paul and I met because I fell in love with his piano music and was interested in recording his complete piano works. When we met, he showed me this melody that he had held onto for years, composed for a television series about the Vietnam War for which he was writing music. I was astonished at how gorgeous it was and how it reminded me of the countryside of Vietnam. It was full of nostalgia and beauty, with this soaring violin solo, a gorgeous melody. Paul asked me, “What do you think of it? This is what I wrote for my series about the Vietnam war.” I said, “Paul, I absolutely love this melody.” So we started the collaboration. I worked with him for three years. Not only was he collaborating with me on this concerto, but I also was learning his piano works to record for the Naxos CD featuring Paul’s complete works. I was very lucky to get his advice and interpretation and ideas and all the feedback on how to play his music. He had so much to say about his inspirations and what he was thinking and tempi. It was such a rich collaboration.

EM: He's very fortunate to be able to work with you as well. There's nothing better than being able to work with a composer on their own works

QN: I felt transformed by the experience. The closest I had been able to get to that was when I was on a Fulbright studying with Yvonne Loriod Messiaen. She showed me manuscripts and explained to me, my husband did this and he wrote this and he told me to play like this and here's the pedal, and so I was able to get pretty close to it.

EM: I can only imagine how amazing it was working with her.

QN: Yes. So when Paul and I met and I had this opportunity to work with him, I understood what a treasurable experience it was. We really deepened to the collaboration and I feel very lucky to have had that opportunity.

EM: Paul wrote the Concerto Fantasy especially for you. What inspired him, and how would you describe the piece in your own words?

QN: The concerto starts out with that gorgeous melody I described earlier. Then Paul gave me a theme that he said portrayed me as a young girl growing up in Vietnam and studying music. Then there was a passage, very virtuosic, dark and threatening, like a foreboding of something difficult that's going to come. In the second movement there's a jazzy part that's supposed to portray the entry of some American into Vietnam. It was easygoing and very, very fun. Then the love theme came, which Paul said he had written and used many times throughout his life. He first wrote it when he and his wife met, over 40 years ago. That theme was in the second movement after the jazzy part. The third movement is where the war was portrayed. It had bullets flying, fragments back and forth between the orchestra and the piano, virtuosic and very percussive parts in the piano. Also a chordal passage that is reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition and the gates of Kiev. Then the love theme came back, together with the orchestra, forte, then more fighting and darkness and more of that frightening portrayal of war. In the last movement there were joyous moments and a fun passage that Paul called the Hanoi Rag. The very first theme, the Vietnam theme that was featured from the very beginning, also came back. The piece ends very quietly, but with a sense of hope and reconciliation. So it's a very personal concerto for me, obviously. I was born after the war, but my family and everyone surrounding me had been impacted by the war.

EM: I can only imagine how difficult that must have been for all of you.

QN: Yes, a very difficult time leaving the country and also coming to the United States. I was incredibly relieved and happy that Vietnam and US established diplomatic relations after a while. And extremely humbled and grateful that I was able to perform this work with the Vietnamese National Symphony Orchestra in commemoration of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam after 25 years. The commemoration was supposed to take place in 2020, but when Covid happened it was postponed until 2022. It was such an honor, a wonderful feeling after the U .S. and Vietnam had been at war for so long, such an incredibly long and costly war that cost lives from both countries and impacted so many, and now our countries are friends and have good diplomatic relations with each other. That's incredibly important and meaningful to me as a Vietnamese-American. I came from Hanoi but I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunities and the life I was able to build here in the United States.

EM: I can totally relate to what you're saying. We watched the war on TV night after night. I participated in demonstrations protesting it. It was such an emotional thing for all of us. I'm delighted to know you feel good about the relationship finally being close between our two countries.

QN: It's incredible how much it impacted everyone. Paul also shared with me how during the war he was really working for peace. That's ultimately what this concerto is about. After all that, there's a sense of hope and reconciliation and peace. It's incredibly meaningful to have music bringing together different cultures and bringing a message of peace in such a time as ours, where there's still so much fighting many parts of the world. It's so painful to watch and hear and see it in the news. Every time that happens, it's just heartbreaking. That makes this particular performance that much more important because it's not only about what it was originally about, but also about everything that's going on in the world right now.

EM: I'm sure the audience is going to be very emotionally drawn in. Could you talk about some of the other pieces on your world premiere recording of Paul’s works?

QN: Well, the Ami duet, which I loved, is so fun and French influenced. I also recorded his Four Reveries after Beethoven, a world premiere. He made many edits to it while working with me. They were influenced and inspired by four of his most favorite Beethoven sonatas. I also recorded the Bagatelles, which he wrote for Jerome Lowenthal. I was fortunate to work with Paul on every single one of those pieces. Paul told me they were a collection of some of his most favorite melodies of his entire career. He grouped them together and made them 14 haikus, the short Japanese poem, in music. Some of them are absolutely beautiful. There was one dedicated to his wife, one dedicated to William Bolcolm, one of his best friends. Some were influenced by Japanese music and others influenced by American popular music. One influenced by Shostakovich, the Toccata. They were a lot of fun to play, gorgeous melodies.

EM: I know about his great love for Beethoven. It's wonderful that he can take that inspiration and create something so magnificent. Aside from Paul's complete piano works, you've performed and recorded works of many other composers: Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Ravel, Tailleferre, and more. Do any composer’s works particularly resonate with you? Clearly have a very close relationship with Tailleferre’s music. You've recorded a vast amount of it. Are there other composers that you especially favor?

QN: I adore French music, but I also really love the music of Bach and especially the music of Chopin. Those are some of my favorite composers. Also Beethoven, of course, and Schubert. I'm drawn to different composers at different moments and times. But those are some of my favorites.

EM: Are there any pieces you have not yet recorded that you would very much like to record?

QN: That's a great question. I would love to record the Tailleferre Concerti. That's one of my dreams. I'm working on the Bach Goldberg Variations, something I love playing. And Chopin Concerti, I have to confess…(Laughs)

EM: What pianist wouldn't kill to record those? 

QN: Yes, yes, (Laughs) you're absolutely right.

EM: I watched your video of the first concerto and absolutely loved it. So that's something that definitely could be in the cards. What do you most look forward to in this weekend's performance?

QN: Being able to touch the audience with the music, to communicate the emotions and the meaning of the music. I hope to be able to bring out that message and the beauty of the piece, and the story of, first war, but then peace and being together and a sense of resolution. I hope to be able to unite people with music and bring together different cultures and to enjoy the beauty of the piece, this beautiful concerto with the orchestra.

EM: It sounds like a wonderful mission. I'm sure everybody will be looking forward to seeing you and hearing you, and enjoy what you have to communicate to us. It's going to be an absolutely wonderful experience.

QN: Thank you for asking so in depth about the concerto. I just wanted to say again, I'm incredibly honored and excited to be performing with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. It's my first time in Seattle and my first time with this symphony and I'm a bit overwhelmed at the moment, but I hope to do a good job on Sunday.

EM: I have no doubt you’re going to do a fantastic job with the orchestra. They have a wonderful camaraderie and will welcome you with open arms. You’ll feel that the moment you get onstage. And it's a wonderful hall. You're going to enjoy the whole experience.

QN: Thank you so much for your encouragement as well. It really means a lot.

EM: I'm delighted to hear it. I look forward to your performance and wish you the best success, which I know it will be. It will be very emotional and inspiring for you as well. Thank you for spending this time with me.

QN: Thank you, Erica. 
Details about Celebrate Asia can be found at: 


Photo credits: Lisa Mazzucco
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

No comments: