February 18, 2020

MSM Spotlight: Lisa Yui

Faculty member Lisa Yui has been described as “a musical phenomenon” by Pianiste magazine and leads a multifaceted musical career as pianist, lecturer, teacher, author, and musical director.

We sat down with Lisa Yui (DMA ’05, Associate Dean for Assessment & Programs) ahead of her bi-annual Lives of the Piano lecture and performance event, to talk about the importance of music history, collaborating with other musicians, and celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday year.

Tell us about your upcoming performance, Lives of the Piano.

Lisa: This is the 19th year of the Lives of the Piano series. I started this when I was a doctoral student and asked the Dean at the time if I could hold a lecture series instead of a chamber music project. Once he had given me the okay, I started working on creating a four-part lecture series tracing the history of the piano. I thought it would be fun to just get some of my colleagues and faculty members together to talk about piano and listen to piano music. It’s continued to grow over nearly 20 years, and now I’m a faculty member inviting students to perform as well as my colleagues.

It’s a very personal project of mine. This year is Beethoven’s 250th birthday, so I knew that the whole world would be listening to his music. Even though I teach a course on his sonatas and have recorded a couple of them, I felt that people will have enough of his works this year without my help! I’m more interested in how Beethoven influenced the composers after him, so this Lives of the Piano concert will present his magnum opus, the Ninth Symphony, as arranged by Franz Liszt for two pianos.

Photos by Toby Winarto (BM '19, MM '21)

Why is this collaboration important to you?

Lisa: I think there’s so much division in in the world, and this is also reflected in the concert-going experience. If we go to a concert, they typically perform only a certain type of repertoire for a certain type of audience. I want a more organic unity in my programs. Most of these concerts are theme-based. One program was centered around music with eastern influences. In this instance, the pieces ranged from Mozart’s Turkish March sonata to John Cage’s 4’33” performed by students, colleagues, and alumni. I’m interested in this unity through convergence of styles and generations.

As far as having my students participate in this, there’s just so much incredible talent at MSM and it’s inspiring for me to hear them play. Quite often these are students that I only know in the classroom, and it shows me a different aspect of them when I get to see them perform. It gives me the juice to go on and realize that people still do love music and there’s still amazing talent all around. It inspires me to keep studying and continue working on this series.

I’m so glad that Lives of the Piano gives students the opportunity to perform, because I think there should always be as many of these opportunities as possible. Practicing is one thing, but it’s important to get accustomed to presenting in public.

Why did you choose Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to perform?

Lisa: I wanted something exciting! I think the organizer has to be excited about a program in order for that excitement to be transmitted to the audience. The idea of putting together this historic, gargantuan masterpiece that influenced future generations, as arranged by a pianist who completely transformed piano technique was very, very attractive to me.

I’ve also never heard this performed live before and really wanted to see what it would sound like. I consider the spirit of the Lives of the Piano series to be about connections: connecting classical music with contemporary music, the past with the present, older faculty like me with young students. I want us all to come together to create this incredible work.

I believe that music is a connection of the heart, and that curiosity allows us to understand the music in a deeper, more authentic way.

DMA '05, Piano Faculty

What’s different about hearing this work performed by the piano as opposed to in a symphony recording?

Lisa: Liszt transcribed Beethoven’ symphonies into two versions: one for two pianos and one for solo piano. In the solo piano version, he gave up on the choral music movement of the Ninth Symphony because he deemed it impossible to transcribe the entire orchestra plus the choral section. In the two pianos arrangement, which is the version we will be presenting in this concert, it became possible to include everything.

Liszt is one of the great transcribers of all time because he didn’t simply take the notes of the symphony and translate it to piano, he understood the density of sound that a full orchestra could create. So for example, if the whole orchestra was playing “D,” rather than just adding one note he would add full chords and tremolos. So the challenge for the pianists in this concert is to create that massive symphonic effect with just two pianos. It’s always fun to watch two pianos create music together that’s familiar to the general audience but presented in a different manner.

Why is important for musicians to study music history?

Lisa: This is a good question to consider—does knowing about the life of a composer and the times in which he or she lived affect the way we perform or listen to music? I think knowing that Beethoven was pretty much completely deaf by the time he composed the Ninth Symphony, that he nevertheless conducted its premier, and that Liszt felt such a connection to Beethoven—he owned his death mask and piano—moves us emotionally, and makes these composers become more human. This humanity somehow translates into how we approach this music, and that’s one of its great mysteries. For example, today I gave a lecture on Schumann and his deep love for his wife-to-be Clara and all of these pieces that were born out of a longing for her. I believe that music is a connection of the heart, and that curiosity allows us to understand the music in a deeper, more authentic way.


Read more conversations with students and faculty members about creativity, inspiration, and life at MSM.

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