Tatler Asia: What Matters To Me: Concert Pianist Li Churen
Chong Seow Wei
8 JUL 2020
"The Singaporean pianist and educator wants to make classical music relevant to her generation"
The Singaporean pianist and educator wants to make classical music relevant to her generation
In the What Matters To Me series, a Generation T honouree describes what they do, why they do it, and why it matters.
As a toddler, Li Churen would pound her tiny fists on the keys of her family’s Yamaha Clavinova piano at home. Sensing her potential, her parents enrolled her in piano classes, leading Li to later hone her skills by taking part in international competitions and music festivals.
At age 16, she was offered the rare opportunity to read music at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, where she graduated three years later in 2015 as the youngest in her cohort. Since then, Li has lived, studied and performed in Europe as a concert pianist.
Here, she describes her musical journey and how she wants to make classical music relevant to her generation.
I find playing music deeply enjoyable. I relish the sensation of being one with my instrument and feeling the energy that courses through my body when I perform.
Music gives us the vocabulary to express the messiness and incomparable beauty of what it means to be human. From the sublime and the mundane, to the reverent and the cheeky. There's a misconception that classical music is boring and sure, it takes a little bit more effort to understand it than say, an Ed Sheeran song. But when you dig deep and get underneath the surface of the sounds, the rewards are numerous and fascinating.
Music gives us the vocabulary to express the messiness and incomparable beauty of what it means to be human
— Li Churen
The one question that underpins my work as a musician today is how we keep Western classical music—with its rich history and varied traditions—relevant, alive and vibrant. It applies to both the way we artists reach audiences and how we make sense of our own relationship with the past.
I've been fascinated with experimenting with the presentation of Western classical music. I've organised several projects in Singapore and the UK, including a concert at Singapore's iconic Zouk nightclub that I co-directed, co-produced and co-performed with mezzo-soprano Jade Tan Shi Yu. We wanted to take Western classical music out of the gilded cage of the concert hall and hold it in a subversive space such as a nightclub. We combined European art songs with an immersive and intimate staging format. The concert was titled “Skandalkonzert", after the historical 1913 concert of Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, who antagonised audiences with his compositional premieres and caused a riot.
I hope to help shape a more open, inclusive and creative future for Western classical music
— Li Churen
Post-Covid-19, the global arts scene will be shaken up. It will move towards leaner models of production and perhaps there will be more introspective enquiry about the nature of art-making. I hope to help shape a more open, inclusive and creative future for Western classical music. To borrow the words of Joseph W Polisi, the former president of The Juilliard School, “Artists must be not only communicative through their art, but also knowledgeable about the intricacies of our society—politically, economically, socially—so that they can effectively work towards showing the power of the arts to a nation and its people”.