Soft­ware en­gi­neer­ing mixes with mu­sic in pi­anist’s life

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Carolina Living - BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN Arts Cor­re­spon­dent

At 17, Sil­i­con Val­ley-born Daniel Hsu con­trib­uted to the Work­flow app, which won the 2015 Ap­ple De­sign Award and got him and the other de­sign­ers hired by the cor­po­rate gi­ant.

At 19, Cur­tis In­sti­tute of Mu­sic stu­dent Daniel Hsu won the bronze medal at the Van Cliburn In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion, plus awards for cham­ber mu­sic and ren­di­tion of a new work.

At 21, both Daniel Hsus oc­cupy the same body.

He rocks the key­board at Ap­ple as an em­ployee whose mu­si­cal ab­sences, he says, have been grace­fully tol­er­ated. And he Rachs an­other key­board on the per­for­mance cir­cuit that brings him to town March 20 in the Char­lotte Con­certs sea­son. He’s a last-minute re­place­ment for “The Pink Pan­ther in Con­cert,” af­ter the Henry Mancini In­sti­tute Or­ches­tra can­celed its tour.

You will in­deed hear one of Rach­mani­nov’s Etudes Tableaux when he plays at Knight The­ater. The pro­gram of­fers shorter works by Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Rach­mani­nov and Tchaikovsky in the first half and Mus­sorgsky’s mas­sive “Pic­tures at an Ex­hi­bi­tion” in the sec­ond.

You might think he was try­ing to mix cere­bral and emo­tional pieces to show mul­ti­ple sides of his per­son­al­ity, but no: He just loves Rus­sians.

“When I grew up (in Fre­mont, Cal.), my first pi­ano teach­ers were Rus­sian, and there’s a large amount of in­cred­i­ble Rus­sian mu­sic,” Hsu said, strug­gling with a cold last week the day be­fore a Hawai­ian tour. “I love Ger­man mu­sic, but I’ve played a lot of Beethoven and Brahms, and I’m tak­ing time out now for Rus­sian ro­man­tics.

“Pi­anists can be very method­i­cal about balanc­ing a pro­gram or play­ing

pieces that have cer­tain re­la­tion­ships. I just start by ask­ing, ‘Do I want to play this?’ ”

Hsu bounces from solo recitals to cham­ber mu­sic to con­cer­tos with or­ches­tras, in­clud­ing the N.C. Sym­phony last July. Each has its own re­ward: The first gives con­trol over pro­gram­ming, the sec­ond pro­vides the joy of col­lab­o­ra­tion, the third yields the plea­sure of rid­ing a wave of sound from a room­ful of mu­si­cians be­hind him.

He’s been on this voy­age of dis­cov­ery since fol­low­ing two el­der brothers into lessons as a 6year-old. He still plays duo recitals with An­drew, who wrote the ca­den­zas for the Mozart con­certo Hsu played at the Cliburn.

But when he went to Philadel­phia to en­ter Cur­tis In­sti­tute at 10, lit­tle Daniel didn’t en­tirely know why he was there: He’d run around the school with a stick, pre­tend­ing to be a ninja, and ea­gerly await the next su­per­hero movie. (That’s still true. When asked in a ra­dio in­ter­view if he had se­cret su­per­pow­ers, Hsu said he’d con­di­tioned him­self to sleep any time he boards a plane.)

He was 15 or 16 when mu­sic bobbed to the top of his con­scious­ness. “I was sur­rounded by in­cred­i­ble mu­si­cians, al­most all of whom have ca­reers in clas­si­cal mu­sic to­day,” he says. “I spent a lot of time play­ing cham­ber mu­sic with them, and these other hob­bies or in­ter­ests didn’t quite (mat­ter as much). At the end of the day, I would al­ways re­turn to the pi­ano.”

One in­ter­est still com­peted for Hsu’s at­ten­tion. He be­gan to work with friends from Sil­i­con Val­ley and Philadel­phia on an app de­signed to au­to­mate repet­i­tive steps users con­stantly per­form on dig­i­tal de­vices.

They all work at Ap­ple now, he says, where Work­flow mor­phed into Short­cuts. (Learn about it at ap­ple.com/siri). Though Hsu doesn’t live in Cal­i­for­nia, “I work out of what­ever ho­tel room I’m in and con­trib­ute what­ever I can when­ever I can. It’s in­spir­ing to work on some­thing com­pletely out­side of mu­sic, and my co-work­ers and bosses are sup­port­ive of my mu­si­cal ca­reer.”

Math and mu­sic have long been thought of as com­ple­men­tary, es­pe­cially in rig­or­ously struc­tured mu­sic such as Bach’s. Hsu sees a sim­i­lar link be­tween mu­sic and en­gi­neer­ing.

“The work ethic trans­lates from one to the other, putting in hours on the de­tails. Both in­volve anal­y­sis and prob­lem solv­ing. The stereo­type for an en­gi­neer is a per­son sit­ting at a com­puter, typ­ing all day, but that’s not true. (En­gi­neer­ing) re­quires you to an­a­lyze struc­tures and de­signs, and you do that in mu­sic. The goal in both is to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter.”

Cor­po­ra­tions em­brace young en­gi­neers, but the mu­sic world doesn’t al­ways do that. Hsu says “I’ve been told, ‘You’re young; you don’t get this piece of mu­sic yet.’ But even if you work on one Beethoven sonata for your en­tire life, you’re never go­ing to give the per­fect per­for­mance.

“Be­cause you’re young, that doesn’t mean your per­spec­tive has no value. What’s right for you in that mo­ment is right at the time, and it won’t be right later. I hear record­ings I made five years ago and am ap­palled: ‘How could I have played that way? It’s a piece of trash!’ Five years from now, I’ll lis­ten to record­ings I’m mak­ing to­day and be ap­palled again. To me, that’s the fun of the process. Mu­sic has no end point.”

This story is part of an Ob­server un­der­writ­ing project with the Thrive Cam­paign for the Arts, sup­port­ing arts jour­nal­ism in Char­lotte.

The Cliburn

At age 19, Daniel Hsu won a bronze medal at the Van Cliburn In­ter­na­tional Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion.

The Cliburn

Daniel Hsu

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