Pianist Joel Fan completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard University and his graduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. He has performed with many notable ensembles, such as the Silk Road Ensemble and the New York Philharmonic, and at various notable venues around the world, including Carnegie Hall in New York and the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. In addition to performing a prolific piano repertoire, Fan has also recorded on several prominent record labels.
On Wednesday, May 10 at 8 p.m., Fan performed a concert in the Lawrence University Memorial Chapel with Associate Professor of Music and violinist Wen-Lei Gu, also an internationally-acclaimed soloist. The two collaborated to perform Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major for Violin and Piano, op. 47 (“Kreutzer”) for the second half of the program.
Fan performed three works for solo piano for the first half of the concert—all memorized. He began with Frederic Chopin’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor, op. 45 and played magnificently, with the piano at full staff. Fan’s artistic expertise was immediately evident from his dynamics to his tempos to his articulation; he ended this impressive prelude with exquisite, delicate chords that were barely audible.
Next, Fan played another work by Chopin: his famous Polonaise-Fantasie, op. 61. Fan spoke to the audience before playing this work, first to thank them for hosting him at Lawrence and then to introduce the polonaise, which he defined as a Polish military dance. He also remarked that this piece is considered by many to be one of Chopin’s best works for piano. Fan primed the audience’s ears for the polonaise rhythm before beginning the piece so that it was easy to recognize throughout the work. During the piece, his playing showcased each intermingling voice with amazing clarity, despite the difficulty of the technique and the wide range of voices mixing in the melody on multiple occasions. The whole time, Fan sat tall at the piano while he played the keys, often raising his hands fairly high in the air after each strike. It was easy to be in awe of him as his sound filled the enormous space in the Chapel.
Then, Fan performed Franz Lizst’s Sonata in B minor, S. 178, which he described to the audience as “monumental” before playing. He also gave the audience three distinct musical elements to listen for during the piece: first, a percussive, pizzicato-like staccato figure; second, the “thorny-sounding theme;” and third, a motive he described as “devilish laughter.” If the other pieces did not succeed in convincing the audience of Fan’s mastery of the piano, this piece surely should have. At several of this piece’s most impressive moments, Fan’s hands moved so quickly that they were a blur over the keys and the piano visibly trembled underneath them.
During the intermission for the concert, a prize drawing commenced to award ten fifty-dollar and ten one-hundred-dollar prizes to middle school and high school students in attendance. The local benefactor who provided these generous funds was called upon to describe her reason for providing this fundraiser and she informed everyone in the audience that she wanted to increase awareness and excitement about classical music in order to have a better-educated society. Many excited concert attendees came to the stage to claim their prizes and then awaited, with eager anticipation, the latter half of the program.
Finally, Fan and Gu performed the extremely demanding and beautiful Beethoven Sonata No. 9 for Violin and Piano, op. 47 (“Kreutzer”). Both displayed admirable artistry in their execution of such an arduous and passionate piece, coming together in incredible cadences and contrasting each other with dazzling rhythmic and melodic motifs. Gu played like an angel alongside the skillful Fan and both illuminated the compositional genius of Beethoven, whose piece remained captivating even through its repeated statements of A and B themes within each movement.
Fan and Gu finished this final piece of the program and received glorious applause, which encouraged them to play not one but two encore pieces, one of which was a Chinese piece and the other an original composition by Gu herself. These encores topped off a wonderful performance that hopefully educated and interested both musicians and non-musicians alike.