By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Classical pianist Quynh Nguyen grew up in Hanoi, after the end of the Vietnam War. Her parents worked in chemistry and science.
But Ngugyen—who’s performing the “Piano Concerto-Fantasy” by Japanese American (and Seattle native) Paul Chiara, for Seattle Symphony’s “Celebrate Asia” festival—took after her maternal grandmother, aunts, and uncles, all musicians.
“I grew up listening to my relatives talk about music, rehearsing and performing, and loved the rich wonderful colors and sounds of the music,” she said. “My uncle, who was also my first teacher, played many recordings of symphonies, concerti, sonatas, of some of the best artists and orchestras, and I was thrilled.
“I started the piano when I was 4, because I was spending a lot of time at my grandparents’ home, which had a piano. Sometimes it was hard to practice when I could hear other kids playing outside, but I was mesmerized and fascinated by the sound of music that was surrounding me, and loved exploring the rich repertoire and sound worlds of French composers such as Debussy, Ravel, as well as the more standard repertoire of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin. I learned all Two-Part and Three-Part Bach inventions, and played the ‘Mozart Piano Concerto in D Minor’ with the Hanoi Symphony Orchestra at age 11.”
She attended the world-famous Juilliard School and the Mannes College of Music. Her doctorate in Musical Arts comes from the Graduate Center of City University of New York. Her scholarships and awards include a Fulbright Fellowship, an American Prize for the performing arts, and the United States Presidential Academic Fitness Award.
Nguyen’s performance of the “Piano Concerto-Fantasy” at Benaroya will mark the first rendition of the work on American soil. But she performed the world premiere of the “Piano-Concerto Fantasy” with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra at the Hanoi Opera House, in a concert commemorating the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam, in October of 2022. She also recorded the piece with the London Symphony Orchestra for a recording featuring the complete piano works by Paul Chihara, which was just released by the Naxos record label.
“The concerto was inspired by Vietnamese melodies and modes that Paul Chihara heard while composing music for films about the Vietnam War,” said Nguyen. “It has beautiful lyrical themes, as well as dark fragmented passages that evoke the fighting in the war. The concerto ends with a sense of hope and optimism for the future, as well as peace and reconciliation.”
The pianist allows that she hasn’t previously met Sunny Xia, who’ll conduct the “Celebrate Asia” program. But the two women, together with composer Chihara, have been exchanging emails about the details of the score.
“I am very honored and humbled to have this opportunity to perform with such a wonderful orchestra.”
This will also be her first visit to Seattle.
“But I have heard about the beautiful mountains and scenery of the area, and the rich vibrant Asian community. I am excited to be here. It’s so wonderful and special that Asian music and culture is celebrated.”
Asked about future plans, Nguyen emphasized that her journey with the “Piano-Concerto Fantasy” isn’t over.
“I am performing this concerto together with the ‘Beethoven Choral Fantasy’ with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in Massachusetts this March, and presenting the Schumann ‘Quintet’ and ‘Quartet’ with the Escher Quartet in New York City, and the Messiaen ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ at Merkin Hall as part of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival this summer.”
The “Celebrate Asia” festival plays on Jan. 28 at Benaroya Hall, 200 University Street in downtown Seattle.
For prices, times, and more information, visit https://www.seattlesymphony.org/en/concerttickets/calendar/2023-2024/23celebrate-asia.