It’s fair to say that once Vicky Chow found her true calling, she never looked back. After a solid grounding in the classics as a student at The Juilliard School, the pianist discovered her love for new music almost by chance. Her friend, composer Zhou Tian, was preparing for a concert of his work and asked Chow to pinch-hit when the original pianist bailed out.
That’s when Chow realized that her musical heart belonged to minimalism and postmodern techniques far more than it ever had to the conservatory.
On a Zoom call from Bogotá, Colombia, where she’s on tour as a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Chow notes that one of the advantages of specializing in contemporary music is the ability to work directly with the composers—which, short of a successful seance, is not a possibility with the long-dead masters of the Romantic and Baroque periods.
“It is the most exciting thing to be able to talk and work with the composer and get feedback,” Chow says. “I work with a lot of different composers, and every collaboration is different. It is a special relationship, because the score has only so much information for the performer to interpret. You’re actually able to have the composer there and ask them about the dynamics and the structure.
“And sometimes there are composers who like to leave it open to the performers, or they might even work directly with the performer, so we get a little bit of input. Like, they might ask, ‘I’m trying to look for this kind of sound; what can you do on this instrument to create that effect?’ ”
As a prime example, the pianist cites Julia Wolfe, one of the founders and artistic directors (along with David Lang and Michael Gordon) of Bang on a Can, the New York–based arts organization that Chow joined in 2009.
“Julia really likes to explore directly, so a lot of the times when we’re premiering works of hers, we have worked together in the room with her to get the right sound, which is so great,” Chow says. “And you can’t do that with Chopin or Beethoven; you can assume, or make the most educated guess what the stylistic interpretation would be. So that’s definitely an exciting part of doing new music, being part of the whole process.”
When Chow returns to her hometown of Vancouver on March 28, she’ll be performing music by another living artist, Philip Glass, and while she didn’t have the benefit of helping the minimalist icon develop his Études, he has certainly heard how she approaches playing them.
“I don’t know him well, but I have shared the stage with him,” she says. “When I did play the Etudes with him at the Winnipeg New Music Festival [in 2018], he was performing them with me and a few other pianists; all 20 Études in one evening. He was sitting there and he listened to each one of our performances. He didn’t just go backstage, back to his dressing room. No, he was sitting on the side of the stage when he wasn’t performing. It was so sweet.”
Nor was Glass idly observing the other pianists; he was listening closely enough to provide specific feedback, Chow says. “For one of the pieces, he really liked it, but he just mentioned to me, ‘Actually, this needs to be a little bit slower. It needs to have a different pace.’ Feedback like that directly from the composer is invaluable.”
Glass, who is justifiably better-known as a composer than as a performer in his own right, famously wrote the Études as technical exercises for himself, as a way to improve certain aspects of his own piano-playing.
Last year, the Bang on a Can–affiliated Cantaloupe Music label released Chow’s recording of Book 1 of the Glass Études. The pianist finds the emotional heart in each piece, making a convincing argument that the rippling arpeggios and circular melodies add up to more than mere formal drills. That the music leaves so much space for personal interpretation is, in Chow’s estimation, both the beauty of minimalism and also its inherent challenge.
“I feel like when you’re playing something repetitive, it takes a simmering kind of concentration and energy to keep that excitement throughout,” she says, likening the experience to that of driving on a long road trip. “You still have to concentrate. There’s nothing about this music where you can sit back and relax and kind of just go through it. No, I feel like there’s a very delicate balance.”
In her recording of Glass’s Études, Chow has found that balance—or at least one very important listener thinks so. The composer himself has said of the album: “It’s a highly dynamic and expressive performance. There’s a certain energy that is uniquely her’s.”
“Many pianists have recorded these pieces, and if you listen to them, everyone does it differently. All the interpretations are so different, and they’re very personal,” Chow offers. “I feel that this is a very personal approach that I’m taking; the way that I’m phrasing the repetitions of every single line, I’m thinking of it in my own way and imparting the expressiveness that I find in the score.”
Playing this music in her hometown adds an extra layer of personal significance for Chow. This will mark the first time she has been on a Vancouver stage since before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Brooklyn resident has not lived here in over two decades, she maintains close ties to the city where she was born.
“My brother just moved back to Vancouver, actually, from Hong Kong, so now it’s a full house again,” the pianist notes. “I have a niece now, and he’s there with his wife. And my sister’s there, and I have aunts and uncles and cousins. I’ve always kept a deep connection with Vancouver.”
Music on Main presents Vicky Chow performing Philip Glass’s Piano Études, Book 1 at Christ Church Cathedral on March 28.