Lorraine Min comes home

By Mollie Kaye, January 2016

Acclaimed pianist will perform Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 on January 23 at the Royal Theatre.

Internationally-acclaimed, Victoria-based concert pianist Lorraine Min revels in the moniker “local artist,” but it took her awhile to find her way back here. Born in Victoria and raised in Vancouver, Min’s passion, talent and professional success swept her away from her family in BC. Many years, many opportunities, and a few countries later, she has finally realized her dream of creating a full and balanced life in the arts, in the city she’d always hoped to call home again.

Min will be showcasing her impressive chops as the headliner in January’s “Min Plays Chopin” concert, performing the Romantic composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Victoria Symphony. It’s an engagement she’s fondly anticipating; not only will she share her gift with an enthusiastic hometown crowd, but she’ll share the stage with her concertmaster husband Terence Tam. “I’m thrilled to play with the Victoria Symphony, and it’s such a great piece, one that I revere so much. It’s probably one of the most beloved pieces for piano that exists.”

Her enthusiasm for the music is infectious. Few seasoned, world-class performers can conjure that kind of youthful energy and authentic reverence, decades into a career. “Chopin appeals to people of all ages; who doesn’t immediately fall in love with Chopin?” she rhapsodises. “Everything he wrote was exquisitely beautiful and lyrical. He was a pianist himself, so he knew exactly how to write for the piano.”

Tania Miller, music director for the Victoria Symphony, says the concerto is definitely a crowd-pleaser, and one that Min is particularly well-suited for. “It’s quite exciting she’s performing on this concert,” says Miller. “She has a big following in our community, and has performed with us several times in the past to great acclaim. The last time, she played Saint Saëns. She did such an extraordinary job, a video of it was put on youtube and has over 50,000 views. It’s wonderful to have an artist like that in our community.”

It seems fitting, in a concert featuring the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra (GVYO) later in the programme, that Min will be playing this particular Chopin, “the very first concerto I ever played with orchestra, when I was 15,” she says. “I’ve known it and lived with it for a long time. I just put out a recording of it with the Emily Carr String Quartet, who are also Victoria-based.”

Chopin, she says, “is one of the hardest composers to play really well. Not the technical part necessarily—although that is an important component of his music—but it’s the highly lyrical and musical aspect, the timing…the ‘singing style’ which he emulated so much from Italian lyrical opera. The accompaniment, and how it fits in with the melody—everything needs to be in exactly the right place.”

Min admits she “sets the bar very high” for herself as a performer. “With Romantic repertoire, performers sometimes think, ‘I have liberty to stretch and take time and do whatever I want,’” she says, gesturing with exaggeration. “But the truth is, you have to do it in a very elegant and refined manner, similar to Mozart. There’s only room for perfection.”

So how does this concert pianist with two elementary-school-age children manage to keep herself on the kind of practice schedule that ensures “perfection”? “I have a very full life in many ways,” admits Min. “I don’t get my six hours a day to practice like I did 20 years ago.” She’s become more efficient, she says, at practicing, and with the rock-solid foundation she acquired at world-renowned arts institutions (Interlachen as a high school boarding student, Peabody as an undergrad, and Juilliard for her master’s and doctorate), “There’s a comfort in knowing that the hard work has paid off.”

She joyfully returned to Victoria eight years ago when her husband took the concertmaster position with the Symphony, and the region’s temperate splendour inspires Min to pursue passions beyond the piano. “Living in Victoria, it’s so hard not to enjoy the physical activities—just the fact that we can go running along the beach throughout the winter, even if it’s brisk out—it’s pretty great.” In her ambitious, goal-oriented 20s, she says her life was piano and little else. “As we get older, we realize that it’s important to enjoy the riches of life: physical activities, time with your friends and family.” This balance, she says, is essential; it nourishes her as an artist so she can bring fresh energy and observations into her interpretations of the repertoire.

Being close to extended family is especially precious for Min, who left Vancouver at 15 to accept a boarding scholarship at Interlachen Arts Academy in Michigan, a decision she says was difficult, but ultimately the right path for her, even though it took her so far from home. “It was just what I needed. I didn’t know anybody else like me before I arrived at that school. I had the best possible training in the world, and was surrounded by excellence all the time—which is why I’m so inspired now, when I sit down at the piano.” After graduating, the scholarships and accolades took her to the opposite side of the continent, then to the opposite side of the world, but she never released her intention to someday call BC her home again.

For the next generation of talented young Victoria musicians who aspire to heights like those Min has attained, the Victoria Symphony plays a huge role. “Whenever I do the Symphony Splash auditions [for youth soloist], I’m blown away by the talented musicians we have here,” Tania Miller comments. “Everything in this 75th anniversary season is a celebration of either the history of the orchestra, or its roots in the community.” The organization, she says, “is passionate about connecting to youth, and bringing young people closer to classical music.”

Youthful flavour will be the dominant one in this offering. The Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra performs alongside the Victoria Symphony pros in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The lineup includes an exquisite, exciting short from young Canadian composer Harry Stafylakis, and the entire enterprise will be under the baton of 23-year-old, internationally-acclaimed wunderkind conductor Alexander Prior.

“You have to have something that is unexpected,” says Miller, who helped program the concert. “Otherwise, we go into the experience thinking we know what we’re going to get, but then we wouldn’t grow and think. We may think what’s important to us is a beautiful melody—‘Chopin, that’s what music is all about’—but then we experience the vibrant young composer, full of rhythm and texture we’ve never encountered before, telling us a story that connects us to why music is such a big part of who we are.”

For her part, Min is grateful to continue to experience a youthful fire in her heart for her vocation, one that was clearly identified in childhood, and continues to bring fulfillment. “I couldn’t imagine life without being a pianist. I know I’m very lucky that I love it so much, and I love it more and more as I get older.”

 

The Victoria Symphony presents Min Plays Chopin. Alexander Prior, Conductor; Lorraine Min, Piano; Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra with the Victoria Symphony. Saturday, January 23, 8 pm and Sunday, January 24, 2:30 pm. Both performances at the Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St. Tickets, $30-$80, victoriasymphony.ca or 250-386-6121.

Mollie Kaye is a Victoria writer and mother who is actively shepherding four children into adulthood. Supporting them to pursue their passions is her greatest pleasure.