The Classical Station’s interview with Bion Tsang for Preview!

Interview with Bion Tsang
by Bethany Tillerson (Perfecto Creative and Sarah Wilson)

Internationally-recognized cellist Bion Tsang appears on this week’s Preview! program to speak with our Music Director, Caleb Gardner. They discuss Cantabile, Tsang’s compilation of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme and Schumann’s Concerto in A Minor, a collaboration with Scott Yoo (the subject of last week’s Preview!) and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

GARDNER: For an artist who’s now in demand across a wide range of platforms–studio recordings, live performance, television, multimedia–how does your preparation change as a performer depending upon the medium that you’re working in?

TSANG: On the one hand it’s the same, in the sense that I don’t think my standards change. Once I move out of what I might consider to be my normal comfort zone, which would be chamber music recitals or concerto repertoire, then there’s extra anxiety and therefore more preparation. Something that comes to mind immediately is when I had to play with Conspirare on their PBS special. One of the pieces we played was Gabriel’s Oboe, which is not that hard to play, but I was thinking to myself that this was going to be on national television and I had one shot. At the first rehearsal, they were getting ready to do it all from memory, so I had to do the same. 

The preparation does definitely vary from event to event. I recently did a U.S. premiere of a piano trio by John Novacek, a friend of mine; part of his background comes from jazz, and a lot of his music is like that. I’m not good with that, so when I prepared for the premiere of this piano trio, I immediately recognized all this jazz and realized how woefully underprepared I was. I spent so many hours preparing for it, and it’s there on YouTube for everyone to see for themselves whether or not it came off well. 

GARDNER: Being an artist and especially a classical musician is a very solitary approach no matter how you look at it. How does interfacing with the public or the press affect not just how you prepare but how you think about being an artist? When you become a public figure in demand, the audience wants to see a certain side of you that’s not the same side as being in a practice room for hours a day. Has that changed the way you think about being a cello player? 

TSANG: I don’t think it has. I’ve been teaching at UT for 21 years and I talk about this a lot with my students. From the very moment that I start learning a piece, I’m always thinking about the other side–what do I want to say to my audience, and how am I going to say it? It’s always about that performance and reaching somebody on the other side. I don’t think that’s really changed. I also tell my students that you have to figure out who you are as an artist and just be true to yourself. And maybe your tastes change. Certainly my tastes have changed over the years, and my views on things are constantly changing. A lot of that is a result of working with a new set of students every year. They bring the same stuff to you with a new perspective. 

GARDNER: How do you balance your time as a performer, teacher, and father? 

TSANG: That’s the eternal struggle, finding that right balance of family and work. And I always feel like I’m not spending enough time with family, and that extends to my students because to me my students are like my family. With them it’s a little easier to say that I’m never going to be away more than a week at a time. Thankfully in many of my trips, I can squeeze in the travel towards the end of the weekend and squeeze in teaching in the beginning of the week. My travel schedule is completely dependent upon my teaching schedule, and I do make it a point to be there for my students. 

GARDNER: Some artists and performers are drawn to teaching and some are not. For you, what’s the special appeal of working with students there at UT? 

TSANG: You think you’ve answered every question about a piece, and then, lo and behold, a student comes in and brings a fresh perspective. I love working with students on that process of discovery. There’s an immense feeling of satisfaction when you see progress, but I find that it makes me better as a musician and player.

GARDNER: Cantabile is the second major recording with Scott Yoo and the Royal Scottish Orchestra. What was it about that relationship that made you want to return? 

TSANG: Part of it was just that it had to be. The Tchaikovsky originally was going to be on the same disc as the first pairing, the Dvorak and the Enescu, but it wouldn’t fit; it’s more than 75 minutes of music. All along I had the idea that I wanted to go back anyway because I really enjoyed Scotland and I really enjoyed working with that orchestra.

It was just a natural fit; I had the Tchaikovsky, I needed to fill out a second disc, what was I going to put with it? So that’s how it came to be. 

GARDNER: Schumann’s Concerto in A Minor is a very special work. For our listeners, can you zoom in into the concept and the presentation of your new recording?

TSANG: Because I started with Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, a big part of my decision was the various associations I have with that piece. That was one of my dad’s favorite pieces. Despite not being a musician, he always wanted to be a singer, so there was that natural progression of thinking, what can I pair with Tchaikovsky that might have to do with singing? And so Schumann came to mind. When I decided to feature Schumann, I figured that’s the heftier piece, so it should end up being the centerpiece of the album. The album also has this mirror image idea, starting with Pablo Casals’s ‘El cant dels ocells’ and ending with a different version of the same piece. 

Join us for Scott Yoo’s interview on Sunday, July 16th, at 7 p.m. Listen on, on 89.7 FM, or on our app!