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Photo by Dan Hennen

When Canadian pianist Avan Yu first came to Australia he left with a swag of awards, including the Sydney International Piano Competition. Which was hardly a surprise as he’d been winning prizes since the age of 13. In this interview, conducted for ahead of two concerts beginning this weekend, Yu explains how youth and knowledge go hand in hand. And why sitting at the same piano as a great composer can lead you down fresh paths.


Avan Yu has politely sat through multiple technical failures (mine) and airport procedures (his) with the patience of a man who knows nothing good comes without perseverance, and repetition.

You don’t relocate your life from Hong Kong to Vancouver when you’re not even ten, more recently temporarily leave Canada for time in Paris, Berlin and New York, and be at the age of 30 one of the most exciting pianists in the field, without both.

Still, Avan (pronounced as in raven) knows that for a concert pianist of rare quality, beyond perseverance and repetition, there must be something else: understanding. Take his personal journey with Maurice Ravel.

Ravel has been a special composer for him, a touchstone, and a centrepiece of the performances on his coming Australian tour where the Frenchman’s Tombeau de Couperin will sit among pieces by Mozart and Lizst. To play on Ravel’s own piano, in Ravel’s home outside Paris for a performance recently, was something more than another show on another piano.

For a start, understanding tone, tempo and even how long the notes resonated to the composer, as it was derived from the instrument and not just the notations on the page, is a rare gift to any performer.

“To play on the composer’s piano, to hear how it sounded to him as he composed, how the instrument responded … you are getting first-hand information. That is something pretty special,” says Avan. “But not only did I get to play in this piano I got to see a lot of his artefacts and items in his house, and that tells you a lot about Ravel’s personality.”

Photo by Irene Zandel

Understanding the environment of a composer, her or his way of thinking, is a key part of working towards a way to interpret for Avan. This extends to the poetic context behind works such as Schubert’s Winterreise, one of the greatest collections of classical song and now the subject of Avan’s current CD where the pieces have been transposed for solo piano.

“I think it’s crucial to understanding the music knowing what the text is talking about,” he says. “Schubert obviously chose poems that resonated with him and he set the music to the text, not the other way around, and if you analyse these songs you will see that it is very closely related to what is happening in the text – not just on a superficial level but on different psychological levels. It was important for me to learn the text.”

It is here maybe that you can see the core of Avan’s view that there is not or, should not, be a difference between a performer who is technically pure, one who is an interpreter, and one who is a communicator.

“It is not the same thing but [having all elements within you] it is important to being a musician, period,” he says. “Technique is not just how fast you are playing, it’s also having the technical ability to create colours, create different atmospheres and sounds.”

These aren’t just idle thoughts. Avan was first seen in Australia in 2012 when, among nine other awards he collected, he was named the winner of the Sydney International Piano Competition at the age of 25. By then he had already been a main stage performer and prizewinner for 12 years, including been the youngest winner of the Canadian Chopin Competition when he was 17.

One of the criticisms, fair or otherwise, made of young musicians is that they are technically gifted but not yet capable of grasping the full emotional and psychological elements the music. It is a criticism Avan has little time for.

“It’s unfair to say that because if you think about great composers, a lot of them when they began were kids. To say that they would be unable to understand the feeling is to deny teenagers basically their ability to feel,” he says. “Sometimes some of this music deals with heavy subjects, some things that maybe a normal teenager wouldn’t have encountered, yet. But still you can do that with imagination.

“All these artists painting, for the church, hell: how do they know what hell looks like? Does that make it really shallow art? I don’t think so.”

Avan Yu will perform at Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, on June 30, and at Camberwell Grammar School, on July 26

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