Pianist gives his aural feast a visual touch

Far from being content to let his audiences feast their ears, Pianist Sun Yutong is keen to also provide a commentary that inspired the work of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky.


Pianist Sun Yutong takes a photo with audience members on Sept 26. [Photo by Luo Wei/For China Daily]

November 1, 2022

BEIJING – After a Beijing debut, a performer talks of the challenge of taking on Mussorgsky, Cheng Yuezhu reports.

Far from being content to let his audiences feast their ears on his playing of the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition, Sun Yutong is keen, too, to provide a commentary taking in the visual dimensions that inspired the work by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky.

“These are two interesting and abstract forms of artistic expression,” he says. “Music has no visual, and painting has no audio, so both art forms are perhaps somewhat disconnected from the audience.

“When conveying to the audience what the composer intended to express, I can think of myself as an audience member, or someone who is playing the piece for the first time. Perhaps in this way I can bring to the audience a sense of freshness, and also draw the audience closer.”

Sun, 27, gave a recital at the Beijing Concert Hall on Sept 26 themed on Mussorgsky’s 10-piece piano suite, played in the second half of the recital. In the first half, he presented two works by Polish composer Frederic Chopin, Piano Sonata No. 2 and Fantaisie in F Minor, Op. 49.

The concert is Sun’s debut in Beijing. [Photo by Luo Wei/For China Daily]

“In terms of narrative styles, I feel that these three pieces are a process of steady progression, because their scales are getting grander,” Sun says.

“If a sonata is a communication process with a dozen people, a fantasy is like speaking to a hundred people, and Pictures at an Exhibition is like communicating to a thousand people.”

Mussorgsky composed the pieces in 1874 as a musical rendition of 10 paintings by the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann.

The suite was then adapted into different styles, one of the most well-received versions being one that the French composer Maurice Ravel orchestrated in 1922.

“Listening to the orchestrated version can inspire me as a pianist, because sometimes I need to use the piano to imitate the timbres of other instruments, and the orchestration could provide reference,” Sun says.

“In the last movement of Mussorgsky’s suite, the piano imitates the sounds of percussion instruments including bells or gongs. Some light passages mimic sounds of woodwind instruments, and a few hefty pieces such as Cattle draw from those of brass instruments.”

Performing at the Beijing Concert Hall for the first time, Sun says that pieces such as Mussorgsky’s well suit the venue, which has a rich resonance and allows the pieces to fully exhibit their grandeur.

The concert was his debut in Beijing after he became the only Chinese pianist to have entered the semifinal of the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held in the United States this year.

Sun’s recital is part of Beijing Concert Hall’s 2022 Meet Classics series. [Photo by Luo Wei/For China Daily]

He had previously gained recognition by winning top spots in international piano competitions, including securing second prizes at the 2018 Paloma O’Shea Santander International Piano Competition and the 2017 Ferrol International Piano Competition, both in Spain.

In 2012, he became the youngest first-prize winner of the 54th Jaen Prize International Piano Competition in Spain, and was invited to release a recital recording by the Naxos label.

Sun was born in Tianjin and studied under Chang Hua at the primary and middle schools affiliated to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. He is now studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston with the Georgian pianist Alexander Korsantia and the Vietnamese-Canadian pianist Dang Thai Son.

“They both allow me to try whatever I want, but they will also constantly remind me what I should pay attention to on the sheet music, which I think is very inspiring,” Sun says.

Sun says he plans to focus on exploring music of different genres and forms as a pianist.

The recital last month was part of the Beijing Concert Hall’s 2022 Meet Classics series, featuring chamber music and recitals.

Zhang Yilin, general manager of the Beijing Concert Hall, says that Sun’s debut in Beijing “bodes well for both our concert hall and the pianist”.

“Among the impressive lineup of musicians we have invited this year, we are very happy to see young classical musicians such as Sun. His participation adds to the richness of the performance series of the concert hall this year.”

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