TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Rueibin Chen (陳瑞斌) is no run-of-the-mill concert pianist. His prodigious talent was showcased to the nation when he debuted with the Taipei Symphony Orchestra at just 10 years old. Aged 13, he was recognized by the government as an extraordinarily gifted student and granted a passport to study at a Viennese conservatory.
Chen grew up in a musical family and attributes his initial accomplishments to a strict schedule of daily lessons implemented by his father.
He reflects that he was lucky, in a sense, as being musically-inclined meant his family knew they would have to take pains to ensure his success. His father managed to acquire a 150-year-old concert piano for him to practice on, a feat unimaginable in the southern city of Tainan at the time, he jokes.
After being granted a scholarship to study in Vienna, the performer embarked on a whirlwind adventure across Europe, where he was invited to study in Germany, France, and Italy, winning 18 concert medals before he turned 20.
Winning the Rubinstein competition in Tel Aviv, he recalls, was a key moment in his life. It was there he was approached by the illustrious Russian pianist, Lazar Berman, who asked him to become his understudy:
“He had heard about my story. I played for him for almost two hours and after that he said he wanted me to be his student.
I was so lucky to work under him. He told me many things about his life—his mother was an alumnus of the same school that trained Rachmaninoff, he was stopped from playing abroad by Soviet authorities after marrying a foreigner…
He dedicated so much time to becoming a great musician in such a harsh environment. It inspired me so much, and he told me so many stories after each lesson. “
Chen’s experience growing up in Europe and studying in Soviet Russia has undeniably shaped both his performance style and his musical proclivities. The performer expresses that, although his preferences continually evolve with time and age, “Russian soul” music—including the works of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky—will always have a special place in his heart.
His repertoire for this year’s tour of Taiwan, however, comprises exclusively French composers, including Romantic greats Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie, as well works from Jean-Philippe Rameau and Cécile Chaminade. Chen explains:
“I met with a French government representative when I last went to France and they are really willing to promote French composers connected with the First World War. Europe has a rich culture of musical history, one that is important to never forget. Now that the market for classical music has gone up in Asia, I have a responsibility to reintroduce this culture to Taiwan.”
Chen has ardently strived to bring his own culture to the outside world, too. In recent years he collaborated with composers to produce the epic Winter Trilogy, which celebrates his Hakka heritage, and the Love River Concerto, inspired by a river in Taiwan. Both pieces marry Chinese instruments into a Western-style orchestra for a true East-meets-West experience.
Though his prolific talents and achievements make him one of Taiwan’s top stars, he stresses that he organized his tours and collaborative projects on his own, without the help of the government. In an interview with The News Lens in 2016, he noted that throughout his competition-winning career, he would always see performers from other nations accompanied by government officials.
Chen still believes Taiwan should allow more artists to become ambassadors for the country, and wield its cultural soft power more effectively:
“I still hold the opinion that Taiwan needs to change on this matter. Of course, Taiwan is not like Europe; they have held the tradition for many hundreds of years and have had so much more money poured into developing the art.
But things have begun to change over the past 10 years. I really hope the government can do more and more to support musicians through policy, now that we have new concert halls opening up all over the country.
This is fundamental to preserving the art.”
Although he does not return to Taiwan much, Chen explained that when he does, he is always touched by the warmth and support he receives. He expressed joy at the fact that Taiwanese people are becoming more and more interested in classical music, and how concerned they are with introducing the culture to the newer generation.
(Image provided by Capriccio Chamber Orchestra)
Rueibin Chen will be performing at Chung Shing Hall in Taichung on Nov. 4, the National Concert Hall in Taipei on Nov. 9, and Kaohsiung Cultural Center on Nov. 15. Further information and ticket purchasing services can be found online.