Dr. Jonathan Tsay

Now Hear This: An Interview with Jonathan Tsay

Tsay, Johnathan 2016

Dr. Jonathan Tsay

Soloist, accompanist, ensemble member, arts administrator and all-around good guy Jonathan Tsay is part of the Feature Performance on July 24 for Basically Beethoven Festival 2016. In between practices, rehearsals, and performances, Dr. Tsay answered our “Now Hear This” questionnaire for our audience.

What is your favorite piece you’re performing on the July 24 program, and why? This is a tough one, because somehow it implies I don’t like the other pieces on the concert for some reason. We’re getting a chance to play Beethoven’s Piano Trio in C minor for the first time, which is something I’ve wanted to play for years, and I have a soft spot for tango nuevo, a musical movement that José Bragato was an integral part of, but I have to say that Paul Schoenfield’s Cafe Music, with its wild swings between genres from 20th century classical to ragtime to dixieland jazz and its overall manic energy, takes the cake here.

What do you love about chamber music? How is it different from playing solo? In a symphony? I love the fact that chamber music allows for the freest exchange of ideas between colleagues. Performing solo is exhilarating, but it can get lonely; in a symphony, you are very often completely at the service of the baton out of necessity. When playing chamber music, you slip between the roles of musical leader and supporter constantly, which is a challenge but ultimately the most rewarding experience musically.

How old were you when you started playing piano? Why did you choose piano? I started playing the piano when I was about 5 ½ years old. I had two older sisters that played the piano, so like many younger siblings it became a rite of passage, a thing where I was constantly asking “When is it going to be my turn?” I also played the violin and viola for several years, but when I started playing music with my friends, I quickly realized that my place was behind the keyboard.

What type of music did you listen to as a kid? Have you always listened to classical music? Being a second generation Taiwanese-American and the youngest of three siblings, I was exposed to a pretty crazy range of music. Of course, my parents had classical music cassette tapes filled with Mozart, Beethoven, and the like. When I was in kindergarten, I apparently memorized and belted out the lyrics to Dolly Parton’s “Working Girl” in the car regularly (which, now that I’m re-listening to it, I probably only understood the chorus). I borrowed (probably without permission) my sisters’ Mariah Carey and Ace of Base tapes, and the first two CDs I ever owned were Eric Clapton’s Unplugged album and Leonard Bernstein’s recording of Holst’s The Planets with the New York Philharmonic.

Who’s your favorite composer to listen to? To play? I tend to go through phases, listening obsessively for a few weeks to “clean” composers like Bach, Mozart, even some Brahms, then changing gears and listening to more “complex” composers like Prokofiev, Debussy, and some more contemporary 20th-century/modern masters – then back again. To me, I like playing Haydn because it makes me feel clever, and Liszt because it’s often quite intuitive and comfortable for my body: it plays musically like it feels physically, which is more rare than one would think.

What’s your favorite sound (musical or non-musical)? A well-placed slide between two notes. Unfortunately, it’s an effect that’s possible on every instrument and voice except the piano.

Least favorite? Alarm clock.

Once you leave this world and reach the pearly gates, what celestial concert are you looking forward to? To me, one version of a good afterlife would be one giant music-reading party/concert, where I’d reconnect with all the people I met throughout my life, musicians or not, to play and sing all varieties and styles of music. And to those that were more shy or less confident about their musical prowess, there would be plenty of time to practice. Of course, the occasional cameo by Chopin on the piano and Paganini on the violin would be kinda cool, too.