Interview by Tim Janof
Bion Tsang has appeared as soloist with the New York, Moscow, and Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestras, the National, American, Atlanta, and Pacific Symphony Orchestras, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, and the Taiwan National Orchestra. Mr. Tsang’s career as a chamber musician has been equally distinguished, marked by numerous collaborations with violinists Cho-Liang Lin and Pamela Frank, frequent appearances as guest artist of the Boston Chamber Music Society, and performances at festivals such as Marlboro Music, the Portland and Seattle Chamber Music Festivals, and the Laurel Festival of the Arts, where he serves as Artistic Director.
TJ: You studied with some illustrious musicians- Leonard Rose, William Pleeth, and Aldo Parisot. What were they like as teachers?
BT: I didn’t study long enough with Leonard Rose or William Pleeth to get the full benefit of their ideas, though I remember that Rose taught a lot through demonstration, which was awe-inspiring. Aldo Parisot molded me into what I am today. I had never thought about how one plays from a physical standpoint before studying with him, since I played more from instinct. But instincts only get you so far, and I would make mistakes without knowing why. He helped me understand cello technique, and made me aware of why I was screwing up. If I made a mistake, he’d say, “OK, play it ten times, and I want you to play it perfectly each time.” I couldn’t, obviously, so he’d explain to me why I couldn’t and show me how to do it correctly.
TJ: You won a bronze medal at the Tchaikovsky Competition. What did you play?
BT: In the first round, I played the Boccherini A Major Sonata, Tchaikovsky Pezzo Capricioso, and a Kirchner solo cello sonata. In the second round, I played the Bach Fifth Cello Suite, Brahms F Major Sonata, and the Shostakovich Sonata. In the final round, I played Rococo Variations and the Dvorak Concerto with orchestra, one right after the other.
TJ: Doesn’t this seem like an excessive amount of music? The competition seems more like an endurance test, rather than a demonstration of artistry.
BT: Though a lot of music is required, I don’t think it’s unreasonable. The winner of the competition is expected to be able to sustain a performing career immediately, which means that he or she will need to have a large repertoire already prepared.
TJ: As you were playing in the competition, did you find yourself playing it safe artistically so that you wouldn’t offend the judges?
BT: Definitely not. I went in with the attitude that I can only be me. I figured that if I’m not me, my best is not going to come out. And, if I win and I’m not me, then what’s the point? So I treated each round as a performance. This wasn’t always easy because each time I made a mistake, some judge would make a checkmark, which was a little unnerving.
TJ: Would you recommend that aspiring musicians enter competitions ?
BT: That’s a very tough question. It really depends upon the individual. Competitions have many positive aspects, but some may not be prepared for the grueling experience. It’s good to listen to your competitors and to see where you stand. Some then decide that they don’t want to do music professionally, while others are inspired to continue.
Competitions like the Tchaikovsky force you to memorize everything, which is a great experience. When else are you going to memorize a piece like the Kirchner solo sonata? If I hadn’t entered the competition and I wanted to perform that piece, I would just play with the music in front of me. When you memorize a piece, you experience the music in a totally different dimension.
But you shouldn’t enter a competition expecting, if you win, that you will have a career. It just doesn’t happen that way. For instance, the Van Cliburn is one of the most well-known piano competitions, and yet how many winners can you name?
TJ: You don’t think winning a medal helped your career?
BT: It definitely opened some doors for me, helping me get management. I also received the Avery Fisher Career Grant after I received my medals in Moscow. The competition helped, but it did not assure me of a career. My career was just beginning.
If you look at the instrumentalists who have major careers, not many of them ever won major prizes. It’s more a matter of luck and knowing the right people at the right time and getting a break somewhere.
TJ: You have been a soloist with several orchestras. What did you need to learn in order to become an effective soloist?
BT: Well, this is an ongoing learning process. The most difficult thing is the fact that all orchestras are different, especially at this stage of my career. I play with orchestras at many different skill levels, which can be a real adventure. With each orchestra I have to assess how much I can lead versus how much I have to follow, simply because the orchestra may not be able to follow me. I’m constantly trying to determine how much freedom I have? This is the most difficult aspect of being a soloist for me.
TJ: What lessons have you learned about connecting with the audience?
BT: Before you can connect with the audience you have to be heard. So I work a lot on projection. When you play in recital you can always tell the pianist to put the lid down. It’s not that simple when playing with an orchestra. Orchestras can only play so softly, even the best ones.
TJ: Do you have to over-press with the bow in order to be heard?
BT: Unfortunately, yes. I also use as much bow as possible, slurring fewer notes than I would if I were playing with piano. The trick is to be able to do so without breaking up the phrases, which is done by hiding the bow changes.
TJ: Do you notice the crowd when you perform?
BT: I feel the crowd’s presence, but it isn’t my focus, the music is. If there is a baby crying in the front row, there’s a good chance I won’t notice it. I have the ability to tune out everything but the music.
This applies when I’m practicing too. I live in a one bedroom apartment with my wife, also a cellist, where we sometimes have to practice at the same time. I don’t think I’d be able to get any work done when we’re both hacking away if I didn’t have the same intense concentration as when I’m on stage performing.
TJ: Do you have messages that you tell yourself before you go on stage, messages to psych yourself up for the performance?
BT: No, I don’t think I do. My mind is so into the music that I’m always thinking about what I want to say musically. I may be nervous about a difficult passage, but once I start playing, I think about the music as it unfolds.
TJ: You performed the Shostakovich Concerto with Zubin Mehta conducting. What was he like as a conductor? Did he tend to lead or follow you?
BT: He was wonderful to work with. He only lead when the music demanded it, when the cello line was clearly an accompaniment to the orchestra. There is a passage in the second movement where the clarinet has the melody and the cello has a moving accompaniment. I was trying to do a little too much with my part and got off from the clarinetist. So he stopped and said, “I don’t know who to follow here.” He didn’t have to say anything more than that. The clarinetist had the melody, and I had to follow him. But then there would often be passages where I’d say, “I can follow you here,” and he’d reply, “No, you need to do your own thing. I’ll be right there with you,” which he was.
TJ: You are both a soloist and a chamber musician. How does your playing change when you switch between solo and chamber music?
BT: Much more blending is required in chamber music. In a sense, chamber music is easier since you’re not in the spotlight the whole time. When you play solo, even if you’re playing an accompaniment, all eyes and ears are on you. Soloing takes much more concentration. That’s not to say that I don’t concentrate when I play chamber music, it’s just very different. I think more about blending with and supporting the other chamber musicians, and about how to bring out the structure and harmonies of the piece.
TJ: What kind of playing do you not like?
BT: One of my pet peeves is the excessive use of portato, when there is a small dip in sound between slurred notes. I love hearing a smooth line, where the bowing is smooth and the articulation is done only with the left hand. I don’t like it when a musician tries to create a sense of legato by layering instead of sustaining and playing through a line. I don’t mean that portato should never be used. It should be used consciously, not out of habit.
TJ: Do you have any pet peeves in performances of the Bach cello suites?
BT: No, I’m very open to different ideas on Bach. My favorite interpretation is definitely Casals’. I lean towards his approach when I perform them. I can appreciate just about any performance as long as it’s convincing and it brings out the structure of the piece.
TJ: As you know, Casals came from a very different era. His playing reflects the “sound-world” in which he lived, a more Romantic time. Would you say that you love Casals’ approach to Bach, but that you wouldn’t want to play like him?
BT: I would love to play like him, and I hope that my playing reminds people of that era. I love his style of playing and I hope that it is a part of me.
I’ve had other models besides Casals. My other main influence was Rostropovich, because my father loved him and bought a lot of his recordings. My dad would drive me every Saturday to Juilliard, a 90 minute drive, and there would always be a tape playing in the car.
Rostropovich’s approach is on a much grander scale than Casals’, not that Casals didn’t see the big picture. Rostropovich is always thinking in terms of large chunks and the larger phrase, which I try to emulate in my own playing. Casals dwelled more upon the intricate details of each note and phrase. So I try to incorporate both Casals’ and Rostropovich’s approach. I try to play music on as many different levels as possible so that a phrase will be unending in a sense, while still bringing out the small phrases. Like a great painting, the music should be beautiful from far away, and retain its beauty as you get closer and closer, even when you see the fine details.
Casals never lost sight of the big picture. But I think he was so earnest about teaching every little detail that people often lost sight of the wider view. People get caught up in the details when they listen to him play. But I think if you were to analyze his recordings you would find that he had a grand vision. For example, if you were take a decibel reading of his interpretation of Bach, you would probably find that the loudest point would be the climax of the entire piece.
TJ: You have released a CD. One of the pieces on the disk is Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata. Do you find this to be a difficult piece?
BT: Yes, but not as difficult as it used to be. I used to be terrified of it, and would never have dreamt of playing it in a competition, since it is a technical minefield. The problem is that is has to sound effortless, otherwise the piece is ruined. Eventually, I found that when I stopped worrying about the technical difficulties, the piece became much easier.
TJ: Do you find that there is a danger of making the piece sound silly and trivial, particularly the last movement?
BT: I’ve never thought of it as a silly piece. I’ve always thought of it as some of the most sublime music in existence. Maybe that’s because my first teacher, Ardyth Alton, used to tell me to think about how sad it was that Schubert died at such a young age, which would put me in the right frame of mind for the piece. I have always revered this sonata.
As for the theme in the last movement, I think the key lies in how one treats the short note. The rhythmic motive is very repetitive and can sound flippant if not treated carefully. A common student approach would be to vibrate on the long note and not on the short note, which would accentuate the sing-songiness of the theme. If you can make the notes sound even in tone, vibrating each note equally, the line will come out beautifully. Don’t neglect the small notes.
TJ: There are plenty of recordings of the Schubert Arpeggione already in existence. Why did you make another one?
BT: We don’t necessarily need another one. But if you subscribe to the belief that all interpretations are equally valid, then why not make another one? Hopefully there will be people who like my interpretation and will want to listen it.
Sometimes you listen to a recording and say “Now, that’s the greatest ever. There’s no way that anybody could do better.” But you’ll never know unless someone tries and you hear it. I think that’s justification enough.
TJ: Last year you performed Kodaly’s solo sonata in Seattle. What goals do you have in a piece like the Kodaly? Do you have different goals than with Schubert?
BT: In a sense, my goals are very similar because the Kodaly is so technically difficult. I think my immediate goal was to be able to play it without thinking about it technically, which was a major challenge. I thought to myself, “I’m turning 30 next year. I think I’d better learn it.” Obviously, it’s very different music than Schubert. My goal is to be able to hear the music as it comes forth from my fingers.
TJ: When you play a piece, are you telling a story and trying to convey some imagery, or are you thinking more about bringing out the lines or structure of the music?
BT: It depends on the piece. It’s not always easy to come up with a specific image. There are some pieces, like the Debussy sonata, where it is relatively easy to come up with imagery. Some pieces have a real programmatic element, like Don Quixote, where you can easily envision a silent movie while you’re playing the music.
But I don’t know if that’s possible with a piece like Beethoven’s D Major cello sonata. When I play a Beethoven Sonata, I have in my ear all the works of Beethoven that I know and I consider how it relates to those pieces. There’s a certain voice, Beethoven’s voice, that I’m trying to convey. I also think about how it is constructed and I try to bring out some structural points or key harmonic points, which can be very exciting. For instance, I think about how I can intensify a certain note so that the pianissimo note that follows is more dramatic. I’m not necessarily going to envision a girl frolicking in a daisy-filled field or something.
TJ: Do you play much contemporary music?
BT: I haven’t done as much as I’d like. I think it’s a matter of opportunity. If I have the opportunity to play somewhere, I am very interested in doing it. I think contemporary music is very important. I’d like to help shape the direction of music, but it seems that the opportunities lie more with the big-name artists like Yo-Yo Ma and Rostropovich. I hope that one day I will be able to promote music that I feel personal about.