Eric Lu went from being a promising piano student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to a star solo performer almost overnight all by winning the 2018 Leeds International Piano Competition. Now 24, he’s still barely caught his breath. On Sunday, Dec. 5, Lu will give a solo recital at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the Capital Region Classical series.
“It’s been difficult,” Lu said. “Winning the competition changed my life in a drastic way. It catapulted my career. But I’d always dreamed of this. It’s what I wanted.”
Lu became the first American to win the competition since Murray Perahia did in 1972. Besides winning a record contract with Warner Classics, management worldwide, a series of “exciting” concerts, and about $34,000, Lu’s life for the last two years was set. He became a BBC Next Generation Artist — one of only seven musicians selected from around the world each year who are on the cusp of an international career that the organization helps support; he released a recital disc, which included works by Mozart, Schubert and Brahms, on the Genuin Classics label; he began to replace other pianists on concerto gigs including Martha Argerich in Singapore, Nelson Freire in Brazil and Kristian Bezuidenhout in Sweden; his numerous recitals gained top music event status in the United Kingdom; his first studio album on Warner Classics, which included works by Chopin, Brahms and Schumann, gained top Instrumental Recording of the Month from the BBC Music Magazine; and this year he received the Avery Fisher Career Grant of $25,000, given annually to five musicians who have demonstrated outstanding achievement. And all this doesn’t include the numerous recitals and concerto appearances that he’s slotted into every week to perform.
“The most difficult thing is to keep up my level,” Lu said. “But other than the travel, I’m having a good time.”
Being so involved with music all started when he was a kid.
“No one was a musician in the family but my dad loved classical music. We had lots of records in the house,” Lu said. “My sister was three years older and took piano lessons. I became intrigued by her lessons. Fortunately, we had a good local teacher. I was also drawn to listening to music.”
Lu attended public school and by 15 was musically ready to attend Curtis where he combined finishing his high school diploma with college level music studies. Still, he remembers the Leeds competition and what he had to go through.
“The first round was in New York City. I had to prepare two programs and the judges picked one and I had to play it all the way through,” he said.
There were 68 competitors and nine judges, which included pianist Paul Lewis, who was also the co-artistic director of the festival that year, and pianist Shai Wosner — both names known locally. The judges whittled the number down to 24 pianists. The remaining three rounds were all held in Leeds, England.
Lu said the pressure was high especially because he had “high expectations on myself.” But he had an edge. When he was 17, he’d competed in the U.S. National Chopin Competition and had won a prize that got him some opportunities and in 2017, he’d won the International German Piano Award given from a field of fewer than ten pianists. Although he still had two years to go yet at Curtis, the way the school’s programs work, also benefited him.
“The unique thing about Curtis is that it allowed for flexibility, so I could have experience outside of the school,” Lu said. “Since I was in the latter part of my study it helped. I didn’t have any management but I could play recitals promoters requested.”
That included a recital in 2017 at Union College’s Memorial Chapel as one of two Curtis Institute musicians that the current series was spotlighting. Knowing the hall and the piano is only a plus for him, Lu said.
Now that he’s before the public on an almost constant basis, he said he knows how important it is to pace himself.
“I try to balance things. . .my free time is quite normal,” he said laughing. “I hang out with friends and family when I’m in Boston. I love sports and follow the Boston teams. I do movies and walks. But in traveling I’ve found special places: Singapore I love; I love the cultural centers. . . London, Amsterdam, Paris. I love Germany in general and live part time in Berlin.”
What music he plays is especially important: “I put quality first and in recitals I perform what I like,” he said. Schubert is at the top of his list, which is what he’ll perform at his December program: the Sonata in A Major, which is 75 minutes long; and his Sonata in A minor, which is about 25 minutes long. There is no intermission. Lu chose these for love and because he’ll soon record them.
“I want to play Schubert for the rest of my life,” Lu said.
He also plays “a lot” of Chopin, Schumann, and “would love to play more Bach.” For the next few months, Lu is focusing on recording and developing a new spring recital program and preparing for a January chamber music concert in Philadelphia as part of a trio. Sometime in the future, he said, he might consider commissioning a composer to write him a piece, which would be “an honor for me.” In the meantime, he’s doing it day by day.
“I’m taking it as it comes,” Lu said.
Eric Lu, pianist
WHEN: 3 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5
WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel
HOW MUCH: $35
MORE INFO: www.capitalregionclassical.org; 518- 941-4331