Pianist Joel Fan Brings an Adventurous Mix of New Music to MIT

Joel Fan, solo piano
Featuring works by MIT Faculty Composers
April 18, 2019 / 8:00pm
MIT Killian Hall, 14W-111
160 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, MA
Part of the MIT Sounding series

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The acclaimed soloist features a program of premieres by MIT composers

It may look like a lopsided assembly of hammers, dampers, and keys, but in the right hands, the piano can touch on the entire range of human emotion. “The piano is one of the most successful user interfaces in human history,” notes Joel Fan.

Fan knows how to elicit great nuance from the keyboard. The 49-year-old pianist and acclaimed recitalist visits MIT this April as part of MIT Sounding, the annual performance series curated by  CAST Faculty Director and Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music Evan Ziporyn. Fan’s residency, presented by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST), includes a workshop with MIT students, and culminates with a solo recital, Don’t Want to Wait, on April 18th in Killian Hall. Hard rock fans may recognize the reference to the Van Halen song in the program’s title (more about that later).

The eclectic evening features works by MIT Faculty composers, with original compositions by John Harbison, Keeril Makan, Charles Shadle, Elena Ruehr, and Bernard Rands. Also on deck are compositions by two musical duos: Ziporyn and Christine Southworth ‘02, and Rands and Augusta Read Thomas. The program concludes with Gyorgy Ligeti’s masterful Etudes Book III.  

“It’s an incredibly exciting opportunity for me to work with these students and the MIT faculty composers,” says Fan. “They are all exploring the boundaries of piano and of sound, asking what it means to be a pianist in the year 2019.”

Ziporyn was thrilled when Fan accepted his invitation to MIT. “It’s a privilege to have an artist of his caliber sit down and get his hands dirty working with our students. It’s also a privilege to feature him in our concert series.”

A Life in Pursuit of Musical Exploration

Fan’s musical background goes deep. Born in New York City to parents from Taiwan, he began his musical studies at the Juilliard School, receiving his undergraduate degree from Harvard; he later attended the Peabody Institute of The John Hopkins University where he earned a Master of Music degree in piano performance.

He’s produced four critically-acclaimed solo piano albums, including Revelations, which pays homage to his mentor and teacher, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Leon Kirchner. And for those who question the appeal of wide-ranging programming, Fan’s first solo album, World Keys, debuted at number three on Billboard’s Classical Chart.

While he’s clearly committed to bringing new music to audiences around the world, Fan also honors the historic significance of his instrument. “The piano is our link to musical history. It’s something that brought joy to people hundreds of years ago and continues to bring joy today. It’s a masterpiece of engineering, and a celebration of human achievement.”

Drawing New DNA from Existing Music

The genesis of Don’t Want to Wait actually began two years ago, when Fan reached out to Ziporyn about a novel project he called “Couplets,” in which Fan invited four composer couples to write a piece inspired by an existing piece of music.

“I’m fascinated by the DNA of music,” says the pianist. “The way ideas and motifs are transmitted and reinterpreted by composers through the ages. It’s a tradition that goes back to the roots of Western music, and that drives music today.”

Don’t Want to Wait, the piece that Ziporyn and Southworth created for “Couplets,” is a musical response to the Van Halen tune, “Don’t Want to Wait for Tomorrow.” The composition by Rands and Read Thomas, Two Thoughts about the Piano, is a response to Elliot Carter’s work, Caténaires. The piece, which Thomas points out is entirely original, received its New York premiere in 2017, along with Don’t Want to Wait. Both works will receive their Boston premieres on April 18th at MIT.

“We loved what he did with our music,” says Ziporyn, who is faculty director at MIT’s Center for Arts, Science & Technology. “We were also enthralled by the rest of his playing—impeccable and musical and heartfelt. He seemed like someone we should get to know better.”

A Grand End to a Grand Season

Fittingly, Fan’s adventurous recital closes out the 2018-2019 season of MIT Sounding, which, as always, featured a diverse mix of artists. “Last week, MIT Sounding hosted BIC, a rapper from Haiti.” says Ziporyn. “This week, we’re hosting a concert pianist. This type of programming reflects what MIT is. It’s not just that there are some people on campus who’d be interested by Haitian hip-hop and others interested in new music for solo piano. It’s that often these are the same people. These are the people we try to serve.”

The 2018-19 MIT Sounding Series is presented by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) and MIT Music and Theater Arts.


Written by Ken Shulman

Posted on April 9, 2019 by Arts at MIT