in: News & Features

March 27, 2014

Meng-Chieh Liu Joins NEC

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Meng-Chieh Liu (file photo) One of the more interesting hires at New England Conservatory in a long while adds a new, and coming, bright light to the piano department.

Meng-Chieh Liu trained at Curtis with Jorge Bolet, Eleanor Sokoloff, and Claude Frank. His masterly abilities as performer and teacher in both the solo and the chamber repertoires have since won him a loyal following and several enthusiastic reviews in these and other pages. After a first hearing, BMInt’s David Moran concluded: “to the short list of topmost interpreters [of Schubert]—meaning mature, profound, direct, not only technically immaculate—we now must add Meng-Chieh Liu. It felt like, I don’t know, discovering Murray Perahia decades ago.” BMInt’s Jim McDonald: “… one pianist I would want to hear playing in my home.” From San Francisco Heuwell Tircuit reported that the “playing was so flawless it is a tad embarrassing to report on it.”

Perhaps one of Liu’s important qualifications as a teacher is his recovery from near-fatal illness BMInt summary:

… in his early 20s in the mid-1990s, well into a stellar career [that] was brutally interrupted by a three-year ordeal of vasculitis (near-mortal debilitation and including cardiac arrests, chemotherapy, weight loss to 90 pounds, hand tendon surgeries with titanium nail implant, 100%-certain predictions of never playing again, grueling rehab”) which necessitated an almost complete relearning of technique.

Surviving such an ordeal and subsequently returning to performing at the highest level equips Liu to earn the respect of any suffering student, and allows him to set expectations extremely high.

Taking over the position being vacated by Hung-Kuan Chen, who leaves NEC for Juilliard, Liu was in town this week to audition students for the fall as well as to participate as part of James Buswell’s onstage family, to which he was welcomed in his new position during a fine faculty recital last night.

BMInt: How long have you kept this secret from us?

MCL: This has all happened very quickly. About three weeks ago, when it was announced that Hung-Kuan-Chen was being hired as a full-time professor at Juilliard, the NEC piano department contacted me and told me that because the school is already in the midst of auditions for next term, they need to hire a replacement very soon. They asked me to consider coming. It was a wonderful opportunity to be at a wonderful school in a wonderful city—it’s just a marvelous musical environment. I also have to say it’s an honor. I was really shocked, and while it all happened fast, it has been amazingly smooth.

Are you going to be taking on most of Hung-Kuan’s students?

Since I am going to be continuing as artistic director of Chicago Chamber Musicians, I don’t see myself having a very flexible schedule to come to Boston, so I will have to be extremely careful with my workload. I am trying to figure out with the audition process going on now how many people I will be able to take next year. Remember, I have to travel to three cities, because I will be continuing to teach at Curtis. NEC has been very accommodating and I am very struck by their sincerity.

Have you spent much time with Russell Sherman during this process?

It was his wife Wha Kyung Byun who initiated this whole process. I was very touched by her selflessness. She really cares deeply about the NEC piano department, and really put herself out there in naming someone she thought would be good for the school. And Mr. Sherman agreed 100%. Even though the process has been amazingly quick, I think I’ve met everybody in the department. It was fortuitous that I had already been scheduled to play at Gardner two weeks ago with the Borromeo and last night at Jordan Hall with James Buswell.

You’ve had very close connections in Boston not only through the Borromeos and James Buswell but through Cathy Chan and the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts.

I’ve been teaching at Cathy’s Walnut Hill Summer Music Camps for over 10 years, and during that time I developed close connections with a lot of NEC faculty as well as the city of Boston. Since I’m interested in chamber music, not just piano, I’ve also met a lot of the string faculty, like Donald Weilerstein and Paul Biss, so it just seems natural for me to be here. I feel very welcome.

I hope that you’re going to still have time to play concerts for us.

Actually, maintaining my performing career remains a priority, and I told this specifically to the dean, that it’s extremely important I keep performing. And they were very happy with that, since part of what made me such a strong candidate was how my profile is showcased not just as a soloist but also as a chamber musician. I need to continue devoting a lot of my time to performing. I want my students to look to me and feel they are part of a performing tradition which can trace its pedigree back to the greats.

Meng-Chieh Liu contemplates (file photo)

Meng-Chieh Liu contemplates (file photo)

What do you look for in a student, and what sort of individual can you be most helpful to?

Of course I’m trying to stretch them into great communicative artists, but what I find in auditioning and teaching is that you have to choose students that you really care for. You have be able to relate to them emotionally to bring out the best in them. I’ve been doing that for many years and feel I’m very good at knowing what to look for. I especially need to see a level of commitment to visions of music and to the sense of serving the musical community. If a student doesn’t have that, it doesn’t matter how much you push them, they won’t ever become proactive in this community.

Are you saying that music is some sort of priesthood and you need your students to feel that calling?

Absolutely. Today we need to develop more musicians to spread the gospel of classical music. They need to believe that there is an art form to be preserved: they need to want to know that and share it. Though we are in difficult times in the field, classical music is still the most effective way to reach out to people.

For me, performing can be more effective than teaching. That’s why I need to find the balance between performing and teaching a group of students who can learn to do it on their own.

If you’re half as good a teacher as you are a performer, your students are going to be very lucky.

See related review here.

7 Comments

  1. After the difficulties and problems with Hung-Kuan Chen and his students at NEC this is a very good change. New England Conservatory is trading up!

    Comment by WCC — March 27, 2014 at 3:07 pm

  2. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Classical-composer-critic-Heuwell-Tircuit-dies-3261788.php

    note par. 3

    Comment by R Lhevinne — March 31, 2014 at 9:54 pm

  3. Rosina! Is this supposed to mean he was not able to hear MCL correctly?

    Comment by David Moran — March 31, 2014 at 10:07 pm

  4. Nope. We don’t give a ruble about any reviews of MCL . Rather, we care about the integrity of a critic who presumed to judge others- musicians, dancers, artists- while he himself lied in print. And was summarily dismissed by his bosses, thank dog. Call him the late Mike Barnicle. Or Doris K Goodwin. A lie is a lie, no matter how one tries to shine the sneaker.

    Comment by R Lhevinne — March 31, 2014 at 10:25 pm

  5. Ah. So it’s not at all about his highly descriptive, apt sentence about MCL.

    >> A lie is a lie

    Uh-huh. How does this big Barnicle-level (and Goodwin, no less!) sin — and do you know any actual details about the serious obit charge, or circumstances ? — compare with someone who posts anon under so arch a fake moniker?

    Maybe he was a most evil sort of guy whom we should never ever quote again, no matter what he wrote, no matter how a propos. What’s your name? Did he review you too, long ago?

    Comment by David Moran — April 1, 2014 at 12:16 am

  6. Oh, and a little googling (which of course you could’ve done too, Rosina, before posting so piously about sneakers and integrity and rubles and lying) reveals that the obit para is, well, if not as false as a fake name, pretty sketchy and partial:

    https://www.sfcv.org/article/in-memoriam-heuwell-tircuit1931-2010

    Michael Zwiebach reported:
    “[Tircuit’s] reputation for probity and discernment was temporarily shattered when he was accused of dishonestly reviewing a dance performance that he purportedly had not attended. The chief critic for the *Chronicle* at that time was Robert Commanday, founder of SFCV, who writes:

    “His career at the Chronicle came to an unjust end that was, unfortunately, widely publicized. While covering a performance of the San Francisco Ballet at Stern Grove, the printed program he received lacked the insert that reported the replacement of a ballerina, and he described critically the performance of the dancer who had been replaced. It was assumed that he hadn’t been there or had left early when, in fact, two journalists from other newspapers reported seeing him there. That evidence was never explored, his explanation not accepted, and he was dismissed. The news of ‘the music critic who wasn’t there’ was published widely, in Europe and Canada.

    “SFCV’s Music News columnist, Janos Gereben, was there and reports: ‘I was sitting next to him at that disputed Stern Grove incident, and when the controversy raged (and before he was fired), I wrote a letter to the editor at the *Chronicle* about it. The point is he made a mistake because of the erroneous printed program (he also appeared not well), but he was wrongly accused of not being there, and suffered a virtually career-ending punishment for it.’

    “Anyone who knew Tircuit knew that it was not his habit to lie.”

    So, gosh, whaddaya think? I’m inclined to go with this, R Lhevinne.

    Comment by David Moran — April 1, 2014 at 12:41 am

  7. Thank you, David Moran. Actually, the posts by Rosina Lhevinne (!) remind me considerably more of Mike Barnicle than anything Heuwell Tircuit ever wrote. Like Barnicle, RL is unafraid to broadcast exceedingly confident opinions whose harsh authority is inversely proportional to any research that might justify them.

    As Tircuit’s friend Evan Hirsch wrote: “But what I want to share the most is how [Tircuit] was living proof for me how sometimes the best people can have the worst luck. In his later years, he fell on extremely hard times and referred to himself as destitute. Here was an extremely well educated and accomplished man, who was scraping by and downright depressed about it. He suffered terribly from the firing at The Chronicle, especially since the incident was compounded by [a] heart condition… and I suppose he never really got over it. He also endured an incredibly heinous crime when he was beaten for hours on end in his own home by intruders and left for dead, only to survive with broken jaw, loss of many teeth, and other severe medical consequences. Of all people who certainly deserved a break in life, he had a really hard time finding one, especially in later years. And I always found that so sad. It just seemed a waste of a brilliant mind, and a foregone resource for the musical world. When he started writing regularly for SFCV, it was a blessing for him to be connected with the world of music in some way. But the massively bad luck he encountered was certainly not deserved by anything he had done, making me really question the concept of karma. I simply can’t fathom what this beautiful man could have done in this life, or any other, to deserve such pain and disappointment in life.”

    Likewise, I simply can’t imagine what Heuwell Tircuit could have done to trigger such a supercilious dismissal from RL.

    In any case, no one disputes that Tircuit heard M-CL play Schubert in 2006. Among other laudatory observations, Tircuit wrote this: “[M-CL] reached levels of insight and the highest artistry, and I found it to be an uncommonly moving experience.”

    Comment by nimitta — April 1, 2014 at 9:27 am

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