Get to Know Guest Pianist Steven Lin

Steven Lin, pianist. Photo credit: Arthur Moeller.
Steven Lin, pianist. Photo credit: Arthur Moeller.

Editor’s Note: Steven Lin, finalist in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition,  appears as soloist with the Kansas City Symphony on May 1-3 to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.  20. Visit the concert listing page for more information on programming and tickets.

1.) Tell us about yourself. When did you start playing piano? When did you decide to pursue music as your career?

My parents first took me to keyboard group classes in Taipei when I was 6. I was not so interested in those classes. My mom couldn’t get me to do my homework, so she ended up doing all the work for me before each class. Naturally, she thought music wasn’t for me, so we stopped going there after few months. When I was 7 years old, my mom’s friend introduced us to my first private teacher. She was much more passionate about music than I was and wanted me to audition for Juilliard Pre-College division after studying with her for three years. Throughout my time in Pre-College, I was never into music that much. I played many kinds of sports and loved to go out and play pick-up games with other kids. My passion for music didn’t come until three or four years ago. I’ve been fortunate because I was always affiliated with music although the love for it came rather late. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now if I didn’t have the education growing up.

2.) Will this be your first time to play in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts? Are you looking forward to working with the Kansas City Symphony as well as Curtis alum and conductor Michael Stern?

This will be my first time playing in Helzberg Hall. I’ve heard so many great things about the concert hall and the Symphony from my colleagues! I’m certainly very excited and thankful for this opportunity. It is a privilege to be working with Curtis alum and conductor Michael Stern since I’m also currently at Curtis.

Steven Lin, pianist. Photo credit: Arthur Moeller.
Steven Lin, pianist. Photo credit: Arthur Moeller.

3.) What do you enjoy about Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20? Do you have a favorite part, and if so, what is it and why?

It’s hard for me to pick out a favorite part of this sublime concerto. I think one can overlook how special the entrance of the piano solo is in the first movement. After this unbelievable dark and dramatic orchestral part, the piano enters with the most intimate single melodic line in the right hand. For me, it is like a child crying and yearning for something. The atmosphere is dark and intimate, yet very pure. With Mozart, it is often ambiguous about what kind of feeling, character, atmosphere or emotion he is going for. Somehow for me, when he writes in major key, it is not always the happiest feeling. And of course, vice versa.

Guest pianist Steven Lin joins Kansas City Symphony and conductor Michael Stern to perform Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 for three concerts in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Kansas City, Mo. Lin’s performance is sponsored by the Almy Legacy Fund. The Symphony also will play Richard Strauss’ Don Juan as well as Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “Inextinguishable.” The Friday and Saturday (May 1-2) concerts start at 8 p.m. and the Sunday (May 3) concert begins at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25. For tickets and to learn more, contact the Kansas City Symphony Box Office at (816) 471-0400 or select seats online. To learn more about Steven Lin, visit his website.

Inextinguishable Art

Text by Michael Stern, music director

Editor’s note: The Kansas City Symphony performs Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “Inextinguishable” on the May 1-3 concerts. Learn more.

Composer Carl Nielsen
Composer Carl Nielsen

Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 conveys the horrors of war, and simultaneously, the incredible power of music as a reflection of the enduring human spirit.

In our season highlighting the decade and a half that culminated in the outbreak of the First World War, it would have been unthinkable to exclude composer Carl Nielsen.

Art is always a mirror of the world at large. However, the modernism that defined the seismic shift into the 20th century in all the arts, especially music, remains unparalleled in variety and creativity. Even a partial list of composers from the time is a who’s who of genius: Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, de Falla, Vaughan Williams, Elgar — the list goes on, and without doubt, Nielsen holds his rightful place in that impressive company.

Specifically this season, there is a more compelling argument for the inclusion of Nielsen’s Fourth Symphony, “The Inextinguishable.” While not heard nearly as ubiquitously as some of its contemporaries, Nielsen’s “Inextinguishable” is a true masterpiece, and an extraordinarily bracing, unsettling, riveting, and ultimately, thrillingly beautiful creation.

Written between 1914 and 1916, in the bloody first years of the terrible war, the piece is a reflection of a world blown up, and at the same time, fervent evidence of the power of music. At the outset of the first movement, the ignition of an elemental power sets the stage for the entire symphony — it is a wakeup call to an endangered humanity. The inherent compositional logic of the entire work is clear: the climactic “glorioso” at the end of the first section of the opening movement returns at the end of that same movement, and then again, thrillingly, at the very end of the entire symphony. But beyond the logical composition structure, Nielsen is not interested in making the messy or painful elements of that era’s human experience cohere into an easy and serene whole. There is conflict, friction and unease throughout the four interlinked movements. We witness the gunshot-like viola passages in the middle of the second movement, the desperate scream from the violins at the opening of the third, and in one of the most dramatic compositional strokes, the duel between the two timpani in the last movement.

And yet at the end, the triumph of the human spirit is gloriously intact, and along with it, the life-affirming power of music. In the context of the horror of the Great War, this music is extraordinarily moving, as Nielsen describes it:

The symphony evokes the most primal sources of life … Music can do just this, it is its most profound quality, its true domain … because, by simply being itself, it has performed its task. For it is life, whereas the other arts only represent and paraphrase life. Life is indomitable and inextinguishable … music is life, and like it inextinguishable.

Conductor Michael Stern leads the Symphony
Photo credit: Todd Rosenberg

Conductor Michael Stern leads the Kansas City Symphony in Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4, “Inextinguishable” on the May 1-3 concerts. Tickets start at $25. The program also includes R. Strauss’ Don Juan and W.A. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 featuring Steven Lin, a finalist in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Learn more and select your seats online.