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A couple of years ago, pianist Elliot Wuu, 19-year-old guest soloist in the Lansing Symphony’s season finale Friday, casually told his piano teacher he likes to shoot hoops.
“Nothing serious,” he assured the teacher.
“Well, stop it,” the teacher told him. “It’s a great way to jam your finger.”
He concentrated on swimming instead.
“It’s the one sport pianists aren’t afraid to do,” Wuu said.
A lot of good that did. Last year, Wuu was named a Gilmore Young Artist at the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in Grand Rapids. He took on a lot of gigs, including a scheduled appearance with the Lansing Symphony in May 2018. He stuffed his slate with meaty works by Schubert, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Mozart and practiced eight to ten hours a day.
His reward was a blown-out hand. “Unforeseen circumstances” was the official story. Another young hotshot, Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner, stepped in to play the Lansing gig.
A year later, Wuu is back, with some unfinished business to take care of.
“I’m all better now,” he said.
His youth will surely be an advantage when playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, a work so familiar it’s often pilfered and parodied in pop culture.
“The key is trying to find what’s special to me about this piece,” Wuu said. “It was such a fun concerto to learn, but finding the little quirks was the most fun for me. He has little places where you can put your own cadenza, where you can put in your own musicality.”
Besides, Wuu is simply too young to be jaded about anything.
“People say it’s easier to play Mozart when you’re very young than when you’re an adult, and there’s some truth to that,” Wuu said. “There’s an innocence and purity in his music. You just have to have fun with it.”
Wuu was born and raised in California and is now in his second year of studies at Juilliard.
He is competitive when he has to be, but he’s a music fan at heart. Two pianists familiar to Lansing audiences, Andrew and Daniel Hsu, were close family friends of the Wuus back in the day. Andrew Hsu played the Schumann piano concerto in Lansing in 2014; Daniel Hsu played Beethoven’s Third Concerto here in 2016.
Ignorant of their future as Gilmore Young Artists, the Hsus and Wuus even got together and performed for each other as youngsters.
Wuu soaked up a lot of great music in the Bay Area while attending the San Francisco Conservatory, a short walk from Davies Symphony Hall.
Daniil Trifonov’s steely take on Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on Theme of Paganini left him “amazed and speechless.”
Last year, he saw the legendary Martha Argerich perform Prokofiev’s Third.
“It was sensational, one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.
“Seeing these artists pushes me further,” he said. “You see the amount of work they put in, but you also see the enjoyment, and that’s an inspiration.”
Wuu’s work ethic borders on masochism. In his sophomore and junior year of high school, he entered six international competitions, making up schoolwork along the way. It was the toughest two years of his young life, but he doesn’t regret it.
The grind of piano competitions sounds rough, but it’s not the fortissimo Colosseum of blood sport people imagine. Wuu loved the travel and relished every chance to meet and hear his fellow pianists.
The work of two more pianist composers, Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Rachmaninov, fill out Friday’s concert. Shostakovich’s blaring “Festive Overture” was not his finest hour, but it’s a rouser. Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, his last work, was written in New York, but its soul rests in the church music of Old Russia.
Lansing Symphony Orchestra
Elliot Wuu, pianist
7:30 p.m. Friday, May 10
Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall