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The Greatest Gift

Exclusive Interview with
Eric Lu,
winner of the 2015 National Chopin Piano Competition in Miami.

By Bożena U. Zaremba
Bożena U. Zaremba: Congratulations on winning the Miami Competition. Did you expect to win?
Eric Lu: No, not really. I did not have any expectations. This was supposed to be part of my preparation for the [International Fryderyk Chopin Piano] Competition in Warsaw, and I wanted to play as well as possible. I had expectations only of myself.

Do you enjoy competing? Does stress motivate you, or is it a distraction?
I don't consider myself competitive, but stress [associated with competing] motivates me. Competition is ultimately a platform to show your work to more people. That is how I see it. The Miami Competition gave me so many opportunities, and I am so grateful for them all.

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a professional pianist?
Around the age of seven, I guess. I started playing when I was five and a half. My mother once took me to my sister’s piano teacher, and that’s how it started. I was just drawn in.
What attracted you to music?
This relationship is still evolving, but I think that music is definitely one of the greatest gifts given to mankind. Music is a direct expression of every possible emotion ever known. I can listen to a recording ten times, hundreds of times, and it will be different every time I listen to it, depending on what day it is, what my mood is, maybe what the weather is like, or the surrounding atmosphere. The same goes for playing and performing—there are good days and bad days, but when you occasionally get that epiphany moment, when you feel that everything is connecting together, it is the most fulfilling experience I can imagine.

One of the benefits of winning the Miami National Chopin Piano Competition is a free trip to Warsaw and acceptance into the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition without having to compete in the preliminary round. What are your goals for the Warsaw competition?
The Warsaw Competition is the most important piano competition in the world, and there are going to be countless great artists there. I am only 17 years old, so I am not going with any competitive expectations. For now, I only want to do the best I possibly can, achieve the highest level of playing, artistry and communication. If I can give a satisfactory performance, that is all I can ask for.

What is your preparation process?
I continue playing the pieces and taking lessons. Now, as I have many concerts, I will play through the pieces I will play in Warsaw.

Your teacher, Dang Thai Son, won the competition in 1980. Does this make it more challenging for you?
No, I don’t think so. He is an incredible artist, and he has taught me so much. He helped me grow musically and pianistically as well. He taught me new techniques on how to produce a better sound, how to create transparent colors in music.

Who are your teachers currently?
I have three teachers now. At the Curtis Institute [of Music in Philadelphia,] I am studying with Jonathan Biss and Robert McDonald, and outside the school, I am also studying with Dang Thai Son. It is definitely helpful to have several teachers. They all bring in valuable instruction, and I take what I can from each one of them, think about it, and incorporate it into my own philosophy.

Do you remember your first encounter with Chopin’s compositions?
I don’t remember exactly the first encounter, but I do remember when I first heard his Piano Concerto No. 1 at an early age, and I was so blown away. It was so touching. I could not believe such beautiful music could be written with so much passion and beauty. It was fresh then. Now that I know all his compositions so well, I have a completely different perspective.

What do you find compelling about it now?
His music is very special. If I were to choose one quality, I’d say it is music that speaks straight from inside. It does not go through any spheres of philosophical thinking, if you will; it is just straight soul music that communicates with many different people, speaks directly to emotions that everyone has experienced: suffering, desperation, tranquility, love—everything. All of his work speaks of every human experience.

So beautifully said! Are there any other composers that make you feel this way?
All the greatest composers speak this way. It is incredible. I mean, I have always loved Schubert and Schumann, the most personal composer that ever lived. And Mozart! I can’t even describe it. It is unfathomable. Mozart is interesting because there is so much misconception about him. His music is often perceived as happy and carefree, but there is so much profundity and depth in his music. He is one of my favorites. But if I were to pick the greatest composer of them all, it would be Bach. There are times when I don’t feel like listening to piano music and I just want to listen to the cleanest palette. Then I will pull out one of his cantatas. It is so enjoyable. With all these composers—it is really incredible—each one has a distinctive language of his own, yet it is all so connected, even 200 years or more after their deaths.

When you play music, do you find that every time you play you find something new?
Definitely. This is what art is all about. You can never find a sense of consistency, and there are always new challenges. It is a life-long process. It is what it is.

Can you imagine life without music?
No, I don’t think so. Impossible!

Being a pianist is a very tough career. Aren’t you afraid of the challenges?
Yes, I am well aware it is very tough. There are so many great pianists out there. But now I have come to a realization that it does not really matter. I cannot predict what the future will bring, what I will become. As long as I believe in something so passionately, there will be a place for me. Then it won’t be so tough anymore.

Do you have life outside music?
Yes, surely. I enjoy friends and other “normal stuff.”

What are your interests outside music? Any other passions?
I don’t think so. Everything I do is related and connected to music, how you respond to it and grow from it. But I must say that the people I am closest to are extremely important for me.

How do you imagine your life in 10 or 20 years?
I have no idea [laughs]. Hopefully I will continue playing concerts and music will be part of my everyday life.

I wish you all the best and good luck in Warsaw. We will be following the news.