Rachel Cheung’s love of music started before her first birthday.
“When I was 11 months old, [my parents] played the Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 on TV and I was sitting on the floor and after the music was finished I clapped my hands,” Cheung said. “So my parents noticed that maybe this little kid loves music.”
The Hong Kong pianist had her first piano lesson, when she was 4, from her father, a piano teacher. Now, at 25, she is the lone female finalist in the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
Although she has dazzled Bass Hall audiences with beautiful gowns during her performances, she doesn’t think being the only female pianist left in the competition gives her any advantage.
“It’s all just music,” Cheung said. “It’s about sharing, giving, and there is no difference in gender. I thought I would just do my best.”
Cheung said she never imagined she would reach the finals, and if she wins, she believes it will be “life-changing.”
She credits her longtime teacher, Eleanor Wong, with whom she has studied since she was 10, for inspiring her to pursue a career as a concert pianist.
“It is through her that I understand a lot about music and life and that it’s interconnected always,” Cheung said. “It has become my life.”
In the finals, Cheung will be performing Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, which she says is her favorite concerto.
“Sometimes I just feel that music is so great, that the creation is so great,” Cheung said. “I feel small in front of music and I’m always very humbled by great music.”
Daniel Hsu said he has his brother, Andrew, to thank for making it to the finals of the Cliburn.
During his semifinal round, Hsu played two cadenzas in his Mozart concerto that his brother, a doctoral student at Juilliard, composed.
“It’s because of his cadenzas [I advanced],” Hsu joked late Monday night after he was announced as one of the six finalists.
Hsu spoke to his brother after his Mozart performance and found him motivational and encouraging.
“He was like ‘You can do it,’” Hsu said. “He’s got my back.”
Hsu began playing piano when he was 6 after seeing his older brother and sister learn. At 10, Hsu entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia but it wasn’t until a few years later that he knew he wanted to become a concert pianist.
“I was 10. One can’t know too much but I was like ‘Oh, yeah, it’s fun. I like playing piano,’” Hsu said. “I don’t think the real epiphany that I need this for me, I don’t think it came until I was 16.”
At 19, Hsu is the youngest competitor in the finals. He also has the coveted final performance slot on Saturday, right before the jury chooses the winner. And fittingly, he will play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
“It’s Van Cliburn’s trademark. I have to,” Hsu said about his final concerto choice. “It’s the cheesiest answer, but I have to. I can’t not play it.”
Coming Friday: Yekwon Sunwoo and Georgy Tchaidze
FIFTEENTH VAN CLIBURN INTERNATIONAL PIANO COMPETITION
May 25-June 10
Bass Hall, Fort Worth
Final round: June 7-10. Six competitors will play a piano quintet with the Brentano String Quartet and a concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. $150-$260 round subscription; $45-$180 per concert.
Awards presentation: 7 p.m. June 10. $30-$40.
The entire competition is on a live webcast hosted by pianists Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe, at Cliburn2017.medici.tv. Content also is available on demand.
Also, the last three competitors and awards ceremony will be shown in a large screen Saturday on Sundance Square in downtown Fort Worth. The webcast starts at 2:45 p.m., and the awards ceremony is at 7 p.m.
The final round will be broadcast in movie theaters around the country, but not in the immediate Fort Worth area. For information and tickets, visit www.FathomEvents.com.