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Avan Yu: 5 pieces that changed my life

Robert Rowat

As the cliché goes, music is the soundtrack of our lives. But how does that play out for musicians, who put everything they have into actually creating the music we all know and love? In this series, CBC Music speaks with influential musicians and asks them to pick just five pieces that changed their lives completely. A soundtrack to their professional lives, as written by them.

Avan Yu is one of Canada's hottest young classical musicians. Since winning the Sydney International Piano Competition in 2012 he has released three albums, the most recent of which is a gorgeous collection of Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert Lieder. Yu's interests extend beyond solo piano repertoire to include art song and chamber music, languages, writing and cooking. We asked him to reflect on the five pieces that changed his life.

Rachmaninoff: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43

"This work of genius has been with me for over half my life. I can’t think of another piece that has been with me so consistently throughout my performing career. This is what I played at my debut with the Vancouver Symphony and since that concert, we have performed this work many times for tens of thousands of people. This was also the winning piece I played at the Sydney International Piano Competition at the Sydney Opera House in 2012."

Schumann: Piano Quintet in E-flat Major, Op. 44

"I was 16 when I first encountered the Schumann Piano Quintet. Like a first love, I’ll always remember reading through this for the first time at the Young Artists Program in Ottawa at the NAC and thinking it's not possible for music to be this beautiful. This was also my intro into the wonderful world of chamber music. It turned on a light inside me and it hasn’t dimmed ever since."

Beethoven: Piano Sonatas, Op. 2, No. 1-3

"These were the pieces that made me realize I had perfect pitch. When I was 10, my dad used to play a cassette tape of these sonatas in the car. For some reason, we never changed the cassette and so each time we drove the car, the Op. 2 sonatas were playing. One day, I noticed that the music changed pitch and while no one else in the car seemed to notice, it bothered me. I took out the cassette tape and played it at home and compared the pitch with my piano. And sure enough, the sonatas were no longer in the 'right' key and I realized that I had perfect pitch."

Chopin: Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C Major, Op. 3

"Yo-Yo Ma has been my idol ever since I bought my first Yo-Yo Ma CD. Even though I had dreamt of playing with him one day, I had not expected to get the chance when I was 22. It was scary at first — I had to learn this piece with one week’s notice. However, as soon as I met Yo-Yo, he put me at ease and we had a great time making music together onstage!"

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K.466

"The fact that Mozart did not leave us any cadenzas for this concerto spurred many composers to write cadenzas for it — Beethoven and Brahms included. I was having a hard time choosing which cadenzas to play when I suddenly thought, 'Why don’t I write one myself?' And thus began my start in composing, i.e. putting notes on paper, scratching them out and scribbling unintelligibly."

Listen to Avan Yu's performances with the NAC Orchestra under Pinchas Zukerman.