The sublime pianist Hung-Kuan Chen is playing for keeps at what I think of as the great three-way intersection of our time. His passport says: USA. His stock in trade is the classical canon of European music from Mozart to Messaien, Beethoven to Bartok. His working base is the piano department chair at the Shanghai Conservatory in a country with 80-million young students of keyboard music.
He perches, so to speak, high above the three-cornered convergence of the new Big Three: China, the European Union and the United States — what Parag Khanna calls the “global, multicivilizational, multipolar battle” of the era. Hung-Kuan Chen’s life is not about battles or geo-politics, of course; it’s about art and music. What he teaches, and what we talk about in this conversation, is above all a consciousness that comes with a lifelong immersion in musical masterworks, mostly Western but Chinese as well:
What I brought [to the Shanghai Conservatory] is a certain attitude, or paradigm… that being a musician is to be an artist. And to have an artistic life means to be means highly intelligent, highly alert, discerning and sensitive to the inner world and to the outer world. All in all it is a spiritual experience… a complex life. One has to live it, experience it. I teach them that music work or art work is a by-product of such a life. When we learn a great piece of music — say by Beethoven, Mozart or Schubert, it’s a two-way street. The music is itself great wisdom. Only when we are up to a certain level, we are able to see that level of wisdom in the music and beyond. And this — which is beyond — will further teach us. And if we are dedicated enough to this work, we than elevate ourself to that level. And so it’s a bit like a Jacob’s Ladder, it just goes up and up and up. And that becomes what is called an artistic life.
Hung-Kuan Chen, in conversation with Chris Lydon at the New England Conservatory, February 15, 2008
But don’t we all wonder — the moreso at the very moment when the New York Philharmonic is playing in China, on its way to North Korea, and Hung-Kwan Chen was playing Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata at Carnegie Hall last week — what are the connections and analogies in the heavy traffic of a globalizing culture?
Yes, Hung-Kwan says, he can hope to teach his students about the radical democrat in Beethoven (who in legend anyway, ripped up the dedication of his Symphony No. 3 to Napoleon Bonaparte after the standard bearer of revolutionary France crowned himself Emperor. Beethoven called his piece “Eroica” instead.) But no, Hung-Kwan continues, he cannot hope to protest China in Darfur in anything like the way his fellow pianist Leon Fleischer recently protested the war in Iraq at the White House. Hung-Kwan Chen can count on the authorities in China for prompt delivery of new pianos to his Conservatory — as he couldn’t at any music school in the US. But he also knows that nobody’s interested in his “second opinions” about politics.
Most of our conversation is about sublimity, not politics. That is Hung-Kuan’s way of getting to the point, not avoiding it. “Oh, my God,” as he says, “it’s culture that leaves a legacy, not war or money, or who wins or who places second.”