Taiwanese pianist Tzu-Yin Huang to make London debut in West Hampstead

Tzu-Yin Huang. Picture: Richard Grebby

Tzu-Yin Huang. Picture: Richard Grebby - Credit: Archant

Pianist Tzu-Yin Huang, set to make her London debut, talks about loving Barenboim, Argerich and Arrau

Think of Hastings and you think of what? 1066, the Norman Conquest, and old-fashioned seaside holidays.

But there’s a cultural renewal happening in the town, and one of its distinctive features is the Hastings International Piano Competition which produced an interesting winner earlier this year: the 26 year old Tzu-Yin Huang who will make her London debut this month in the Master Concert Series at St Cuthbert’s, Fordwych Rd, West Hampstead.

Huang is one of the new-generation Tiger pianists, born in 1989 in Taiwan and first settled on a piano stool by a determined mother at the age of 4.

“My mum loved music,” she explains, “and desperately wanted at least one of her children to be a pianist. So it turned out to be me.”

As Huang got older and progressed, she joined the millions of young players in the Asian world drawn to the piano (or propelled there by insistent mothers) under the pervasive influence of Lang Lang - who acquired the status of a rock star and still sends unnumbered Chinese children into piano factories where they spend long hours each weekend hammering away at uprights in small, airless cubicles like chickens in a battery farm.

But Huang was lucky.

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“When I started all that hadn’t quite got going. Lang Lang didn’t figure in my life until later, and he was never my role model.

“I liked the older pianists: Cladio Arrau, Marta Argerich and Daniel Barenboim. They were the ones I wanted to hear. My childhood gods.”

Ignoring Lang Lang was a good idea: it meant she wasn’t brought up to attack the keyboard like an enemy in need of subjugation. Grace, refinement, elegance were her objectives. And she found her way to them by an unusual route.

Wanting to leave Taiwan and study overseas, she chose America. As many do. But Asian pianists of her calibre tend usually to gravitate toward the Juilliard School, the Curtis Institute, or one of the big music universities like Indiana.

Huang, by contrast, made for Michigan: a strange choice even though, as she insists, “it does have a prestigious music, dance and theatre department with good tutors.

“But I guess the main reason I went there was because it’s not a place that attracts too many students from Taiwan and China.

“It was important for me to learn English; and if you go to a place full of Chinese, you end up hanging around with them and never speak anything but your own tongue. At Michigan there was no escape from speaking English, so that was good.”

As things stand, she’s still at Michigan, finishing a doctorate in piano performance. And it’s as well she only has a year to go, because her career is now starting to take off – thanks largely to her Hastings victory.

Going for the Hastings was another slightly odd choice. It’s a new-ish competition, running for just twelve years and still in the process of establishing its international credentials. By comparison with the Van Cliburn, the Tchaikovsky or the Leeds - big names on the competition circuit - Hastings isn’t quite so glitzy, grand or influential.

But its stock is rising, and it pulls in serious talent from wherever. Every finalist this year came from America, from Asia, or (like Huang) from both.

Asked why she went for Hastings, Huang explains that it was happening at the right time of the year.

“I hadn’t been able to participate in many competitions because my coursework was heavy and for the doctorate I have to teach on campus, so that limited the chances to get away.

“But Hastings fitted our Spring break. And I’m glad it did, because I loved the competition - it was a great experience: everyone friendly and welcoming, all the arrangements working well – and I loved the town. It was my first time in England, and a good introduction.”

The recital at St Cuthbert’s is her London debut, and she’s chosen an eclectic programme for it: Beethoven, Scarlatti, Schubert, Ginastera.

There’s no theme, she says, it’s simply music that she likes and feels at home with. And soon after this performance, she repeats the programme down at Rye – should anyone so like her playing they turn into groupies.

Tzu-Yin Huang at St Cuthbert’s, Fordwych Rd NW2, Saturday September 24, 7pm. Tickets: fordwychmasterconcerts.com