Mercury News

Fremont’s Daniel Hsu breathing fresh air into age-old piano traditions
By Elijah Ho

Silicon Valley is the creative epicenter of the technological universe. The land of Zuckerberg, Sandberg and Brin has nurtured such fertile minds as Menuhin, Stern and Fleisher, heirs to century-old creative traditions. But sometimes, even the oldest traditions can hit refresh and learn a thing or two from new, unhindered ones.

Daniel Hsu, a native of Fremont, is now in the process of absorbing both, and he watches as the two worlds pass each other by. Saturday at the Trianon Theater in San Jose, the Steinway Society presents Hsu, 19, in his first Bay Area concert since his prize-winning performances this summer at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. (He won the bronze medal and captured two best-performance awards.)

When it comes to piano-playing, Gary Graffman, 89, a pupil of Vladimir Horowitz, has seen it all. The former Curtis Institute director remembers the day a 10-year-old boy auditioned against roughly 100 applicants — many of whom were older — and came out on top.

“Daniel played many wrong notes that day, but he was exceptionally musical,” recalls Graffman. “He developed very quickly. By 12 or 13, he was already terrific, not just very talented, but really accomplishing all kinds of things at the instrument.”

Hsu’s prodigious musical gifts would take him from 3rd grade at Weibel Elementary in Fremont to one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the country, following in the footsteps of siblings Ashley and Andrew, who are Curtis alumni.

Ironically, it was there, in the artistic haven of Curtis, that Hsu’s Silicon Valley roots began to surface. He developed an interest in computer programming, and with the help of friends, contributed to the creation of Workflow, a prize-winning app that was acquired by Apple in March of this year.

“Tech is the thing right now. Everybody wants to get in,” Hsu tells me from Curtis in Philadelphia. “One thing I’ve observed in the tech world is how people come together and solve problems. I wish I lived at a time when music was that way.”

While the tech world offers practical solutions for widespread, everyday use, classical music seems to operate in reverse. Composer Arnold Schoenberg believed, “If it is art, it is not for all.” But technology, with its vast popularity, is quickly changing the rules of the game. “I know a lot of engineers who consider their work to be art,” Hsu says. “Just look at what engineers and designers did with phones. It was conception, execution and creation, and that’s what art is.”

Definitions of art are rarely agreed upon, but older traditions tend to have one thing in common: They’re steeped in reliable values — some in the form of close-minded beliefs. One fixation that appears to linger in classical circles is that of race.

“Racism is a deep problem that seems like it will always exist,” Hsu says. “It’s silly to say, just because you’re not German, that you’re incapable of understanding or playing German music. Of course, if you’re playing a work written by a German composer, immerse yourself in the history and the culture. But music has been and always should be a universal language.”

While the tech world currently grapples with sexism, Hsu believes classical music is guilty of a different form of dereliction: nostalgia. In stark contrast with current hiring habits in Silicon Valley, youth is often underappreciated. “They say young people are insensitive, that we just play things. One of the comments I hear most is, ‘You’re young, you don’t understand x-y-z’, and that goes even beyond music.”

Fortunately, keener minds in classical circles are seeing the light. Dang Thai Son, winner of the 1980 International Chopin competition, witnessed Hsu’s gifts firsthand when he coached the younger pianist on Schubert’s Impromptus, which will be performed Saturday in San Jose.

“Rarely do I hear a young person place music-making above winning a competition,” Dang says. “The most impressive thing about Daniel is his sincerity toward music: The truth comes both from his mind and his heart. It was a great joy to work with somebody so young, so self-critical and richly endowed with determination and talent.”

In spite of age-old problems in music, Hsu continues to hone the phenomenal talent that’s been garnering attention since he was a boy in Fremont. Because for all the attractions of the tech world, music itself never disappoints in its unique beauty.

“In music, there isn’t really a problem to solve, but there are many solutions,” Hsu says. “If it were about a single solution and how closely we arrive at it, it wouldn’t really be art. The beauty of music is everybody has something different to say. We really just need to listen to each other.”



Presents pianist Daniel Hsu in a recital of music by Bach-Busoni, Chopin, Hamelin and Schubert
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 9
Where: Trianon Theatre, San Jose
Tickets: $40-$60; 408-990-0872,