Interview with Rexa Han
Rexa Han is a young pianist, born in Dalian, China where she made her debut at the age of five. As a teenager, she won important competitions and played throughout China to great acclaim. Her studies have taken her from the Central Conservatory in Beijing to the Manhattan School of Music, where she won a full scholarship and studied with Solomon Mikowsky. She graduated with highest honors, winning the President’s Award and the coveted Munz Scholarship.
Her adult concert career was initiated by a debut at Carnegie Hall. More recently, Han has played at the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She has also performed extensively in Europe, Asia, and across the U.S., as well as appearing on radio stations WWFM and WFMT in Chicago and on Chinese Television. In 2011, Han won first prize in the 62nd Kosciuszko Chopin Competition in New York, where she now lives, continuing her studies with David Dubal.
I was attracted to Han’s musicality via her debut recital, reviewed below, and so agreed to interview her.
Q: If I may, I’d like to start at the beginning for the benefit of our readers. You made your recital debut at the age of five. At what age did you start practicing the piano, and at what stage did you begin to study the music of the composers you present on your recital disc—for instance Chopin, Granados, Liszt?
A: I hardly remember anything of my recital at age five, except that I had on a pink dress. I started practicing at age four, and it was love at first touch. The first Chopin piece I learned was the A-Minor Waltz.
Q: Why did you title your CD
A Tribute to the Piano?
A: I had three reasons: number one, it presents a large range of different idioms of the piano literature, with two great peaks, the Bach Suite and the Chopin Sonata. I also call it a tribute because I pay tribute every day to the piano because of its beauty and challenge. Thirdly, I call it a tribute, because I sit in tribute to it.
Q: What was it like learning Chopin’s 2nd Sonata?
A: Learning the Chopin “Funeral March” Sonata gave me a new confidence in my playing. Of course in the last movement, the famous unison passage, called the “wind over the grave” is a uniquely Bachian page. The very greatest pianists, from Friedman and Horowitz to Kapell and Rachmaninoff, made me want to see if I had what it takes to play with the giants. I learned much from this psychologically daunting piece, in which Chopin struggles with life and death issues.
Q: I think our readers might like to know something about your concerto repertoire. Which concertos have you played publicly to date?
A: My concerto repertoire is not yet large enough, but I am moving forward. I am hoping to get to grips with a few Mozart concertos which still evade my grasp. In public, I have performed the Saint-Saëns second, Liszt second, Prokofiev second, and most of all the Chopin second. Soon I will be playing the Grieg.
Q: Have you played much chamber music and, if so, with whom?
A: I like chamber music, and as a student I did my share but it is pianistically not as interesting for me as the solo literature.
Q: Who are some of your favorite pianists?
A: I have many favorite pianists. Unfortunately, most of them have passed on. Here are a few: Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, Cortot, Myra Hess, Schnabel, Gilels, the Russian pianist Maria Grinberg, Gieseking, Glenn Gould, and possibly the most inspiring of all for me is Horowitz, always Horowitz! His sound is in my bones.
Q: What does Liszt represent to you? Why did you choose the Rigoletto Paraphrase?
A: Liszt is the reason that there is a pianistic career. I pay tribute to him because we all owe him so much. He is the great knight of the piano, both as a pianist and as a composer of great individuality and unrivaled pianistic imagination.
Q: I was very much taken by your performance of the Stravinsky Etude. Do you have other pieces by Stravinsky in your repertoire?
A: Thank you for liking my Stravinsky Etude. I am slowly working on
, and recently I heard Stravinsky himself on record in his sonata which intrigued me. Also, most interesting to me is the Serenade in A.
Q: I saw in the liner notes that you were very impressed by Josef Hofmann’s recording of the Moszkowski Caprice espagnol.
A: Hofmann is stupendous in details. Everything he does is original.
Q: Do you have any special interests beside music?
A: Yes. My mother was a famous dancer, and I studied and still dance. Lately I have been doing a lot of copying of old masters; especially in charcoal. Only yesterday I did a copy of Rembrandt’s famous Lion in the Louvre. I am very interested in fashion and would like to learn how to make clothes. I also learn a great deal about American culture from seeing old black and white movies. My favorite actors are Errol Flynn, Stewart Granger, Clark Gable, and I adore Rita Hayworth.
Q: Do you listen to a great deal of music?
A: Yes, I listen to as much music as possible, especially opera lately, and I am in love with Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata which I would like to learn.
Q: How do you feel about the state of serious music today?
A: Everyone seems to say it is in bad shape. Recitals are disappearing fast. Young people are only interested in the “junk” of the moment. I am hoping that I will be able to find a proper manager who can believe in my playing. I think great music changes lives forever. One is never the same after exposure to art. I want very much, not out of ego, but to communicate with a live “audience.” We must somehow build audiences again to preserve the future of the art of piano playing.
Q: What are your current and future repertoire plans?
A: I am learning the Rachmaninoff third concerto, and it is more difficult than I thought. But I guess so much is. I’d like to delve into some Scriabin and I want to learn Chopin’s third sonata. In fact, I’d like to learn everything I love, and that is a lot. But time flies!
Q: What would you like on your next recording?
A: On my next recording I want to do Beethoven’s sonata op. 27/1 or the Clementi sonata in F♯ Minor, along with Schumann’s
which I’ve been performing lately, and the Liszt sonata which I am in awe of.
A TRIBUTE TO THE PIANO
Rexa Han (pn)
VICTOR ELMALEH COLLECTION 102 (72:05)
English Suite No. 6 in d.
Sonata No. 2 in b♭.
El Amor y la Muerte.
Etude in F♯,
paraphrase (“Bella figlia dell’amore.”)
Piano piece in A♭,
This, the debut recital of young pianist Rexa Han, marks an auspicious start to a promising recording career. Her approach to Bach’s Sixth English Suite is typical of her playing in this recital: the lines flowing and elegant, yet constantly energized by subtle yet evident inflections of rhythm that move each section forward. I’d have to say that it’s the finest version I’ve ever heard, by anyone. Yet good as it is, it almost sounds like a warm-up to the Chopin sonata. Her performances of the first and third movements are brisk and lively, tightly structured and almost rigorous in the rhythmic flow, much like Dinu Lipatti’s performance of the complementary sonata no. 3. Yet her performance of the famed “Funeral March” in the third movement has all the requisite feeling. In the liner notes, Han states that it took “months to find the tempo that I believed in. In the trio of the March, I never worked harder to achieve the sound I was after—not the usual singing tone, but a sound in the distance.” She certainly succeeded.
Her performance of the Granados piece is likewise quite individual, emphasizing its Spanish dance rhythms rather than the “Romantic atmosphere” that most other pianists seek. Perhaps her approach to this work, as in the Chopin, was somewhat colored by a reluctance to overuse the pedal. Following this is a particularly brilliant performance of the Stravinsky Etude, which she says she has been playing as an encore for several years now.
In such an otherwise high-minded recital, I wondered about the inclusion of Liszt’s pianistic paraphrase of the
quartet. This is almost the opposite kind of music to the rest of her recital, a lightweight dazzler. Although she plays it very well it still seems an unusual choice. Much finer as music is the Liszt
in A♭, an overlooked gem which Han brings to life with a light and magical touch. The constantly shifting harmonies put me in mind of Debussy or early Scriabin.
Han’s recital concludes with Moszkowski’s
which was, as she points out, a favorite piece of Josef Hofmann. Here is virtuosity allied with a creative musical line, a combination of the two elements that Han does so very well. Moreover, her performance has tremendous élan; it sounds as if she is having a ball playing it. Overall, then, a very impressive first outing for this gifted pianist. I look forward to hearing more of her in other repertoire as her career progresses.
Lynn René Bayley