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Interview: Ching-Yun Hu

Pianist and Founder of Philadelphia Young Pianists' Academy, Ching-Yun Hu speaks with us about how intuition has led many of the milestones in her career from attending Juilliard and studying under Sergei Babayan to growing the classical music community in Philadelphia.

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Share with us your classical music story, how did you get your start, where did you study?

The first person that inspired my interest in classical music was my mother, she was a fanatic. I don’t know where she got it because in her generation in Taiwan it was difficult to even hear classical on the radio. She wanted to learn piano but her family couldn’t provide it so she learned typewriting because she thought it was close to playing piano. Because of this, she started my older sister on piano because she felt it would be nice for girls to train and have an appreciation for music. She had never thought her younger daughter would be so passionate about music and want to pursue the career of being a pianist.

At first, I auditioned for special programs in Taiwan and was always chosen first getting in. Teachers told her I had a talent for music and that maybe I could go abroad for music. I had the specific idea of attending the Moscow Conservatory. Back then it was the Soviet Union, so my parents thought no way were they sending their daughter to the Soviet for music, but thought they could speak some English so why not study in America.

Juilliard was the most famous, so I thought, let’s go there. I auditioned for their Pre-College program. We flew in from Taipei, took a car to Juilliard, filled out the application process, and 21 days after auditioning I got in. That’s how my American education started. It was completely by intuition, which for me is a very important thing in all my life decisions. From an early age I knew exactly what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. My parents supported that too.

Tell us about your inspiration for creating Philadelphia Young Pianist’s Academy (PYPA).

I created PYPA because when I was young I went to many festivals and always felt that I wished it was more intense and as a youngster wanted to have more stuff in a shorter time. In 2012, I started another festival in Taipei. I was performing a lot after winning the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master competition and enjoyed being on the road but had a sense that I wanted to give back to society. I wished I had met Sergei Babayan sooner so I could work with him, but I met him at age 23. That inspired my dream to start this festival; I wanted someone at age 12 to play with him and work alongside him.

The festival in Taiwan, with solo concerts, chamber concerts, and masterclasses was so successful that people asked when the next event would be. I came back to Philadelphia and found out that during the summer there was no classical music to attend, which was culturally strange because there’s The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Academy of Vocal Arts, and more. Curtis Institute had just built a new building so the first PYPA took about eight months to put together and was hosted there for the next five years, growing every year.

Audiences will come back for five concerts in a week and young artists come back four years in a row. Registration grew more and more and inspires me every single summer that it continues to grow and people are excited that it's coming. We get emails asking when students can buy masterclass tickets starting in December and our festival has just ended in August! Even the television and radio stations really like us. They’ll come back three times in a week to film and we get on the news in the evening.

What does it mean to you to host PYPA within the Philadelphia classical community?

Philadelphia was the first city I arrived in when I came to America, so I think this city particularly has a lot of meaning to me. It’s the first place where I couldn’t speak much English, where I was in 8th grade and where I entered competitions where I had my first successes. My whole family eventually all moved here from Taiwan, and there are friends we’ve kept in touch with for 20 years. It’s almost like this neighborhood of people, especially in the classical music industry. It means a lot to have this festival right here in Center City, because friends and family all come and PYPA really builds to become a community.

What can audiences and students look forward to this summer at PYPA?

Our opening night concert is moving to The Kimmel Center, which is a new thing for us and I’m really excited for. That’s on August 2nd. The lineup of artists are amazing. Gary Graffman will teach masterclasses for the third year with Dang Thai Son teaching for his first year. Sarah Davis was also just added for a piano recital. We have a special collaboration with the Cliburn Competitions this year, two Cliburn Gold medalists will serve as faculty artists this year, and our young artists from last year are also competing in the Cliburn Junior Competition.

Gary Graffman’s first student Lydia Artymiw will teach a masterclass and is Philadelphia connected as a Curtis student who was born here. Alon Goldstein will perform and teach, Pierre Van Der Westhuizen is giving a lecture, and we added two concerts for our past winners from 2017 and 2018 called Rising Stars. All of this over 10 days.

Where do you hope to see PYPA expand moving forward?

There is definitely one thing that we’re working on and would be wonderful, a concerto performance with an orchestra. I have also personally tried to add concerts for our young artists not just in America but also Asia and Colombia which expands outside of the 10-day PYPA festival into the season. I want to continue to follow what the young artists are doing and support as much as possible. There’s no better help than giving them concerts, so we’ll continue to do that more.

We also just established our own foundation, which gives us more possibilities fiscally to do more things during the season so I’m really looking forward to that.

Do you have any performances planned for the 19/20 season?

My role is in three parts: concert pianist, PYPA founder, and teaching three students. My main thing is being a concert pianist but because of the other roles, it’s difficult to catch on.

I’m going to Asia every other month. I just returned from a 19-day tour and will be going back in July to perform the second part of my Silk Road Journey. In the United States I’m performing the Schumann Piano Quintet with Jasper String Quartet in Philadelphia. In Europe in October I’m performing at the 40th Anniversary Concert of the Liszt Foundation in the Netherlands and then in Belgium for the Brussels Piano Festival. I have a solo recital in Tokyo for the first time in a long time and will be returning to Israel for the Rubinstein International Music Foundation.

I’m also working on recording a new album of Ravel and Albéniz focusing on French and Spanish impressionist works which I hope to have more information on soon!

What are your thoughts on the future of classical music?

The future of classical music is a big topic. I think we often hear that it’s a difficult topic but I have quite a different opinion. It’s a different territory and way of reaching out to people, but people are listening to classical music more than ever, but everything is now digital. So it’s a matter of how to reach audiences through a different way.

We were looking at newspaper ads in the past ten years, but people don’t subscribe to newspapers anymore. That doesn’t mean they aren’t reading somewhere else, so as musicians you have to change your way of reaching your fans and audiences...social media, getting out there and speaking on stage. A lot of musicians are very shy but I love speaking and have no problem going to a school, one way of promoting that I really like and have been doing with the festival. And sometimes (concert) presenting, people are waiting for things to be done and musicians to just play but they can do more to put classical music out there to younger generations. In Asia there are so many little kids learning piano, something like 50 million. It’s still very much in demand but just in a different form.

Listen to Ching-Yun Hu's Favorites Playlist: