Two years ago, Sanghie Lee played Schumann’s Fantasie in C major and it immediately touched her heart.
“I thought, this is my story!” Lee said.
Robert and Clara Schumann’s love story is a famous one, and this piece is a key piece of it. Schumann had composed a piece titled “Ruines” to express the heartache he felt being separated from his beloved Clara, and it later became part of the first movement of the Fantasie. The piece also quotes Beethoven on this theme, taking a musical phrase from the song cycle “An die ferne Geliebte,” which originally accompanied the text “Accept then these songs [beloved, which I sang for you alone].”
“Actually, my husband and I had a long distance relationship for four years,” Lee said. “So when I played this song the first time I’d found my story. I love this.”
Lee was happy to play one of her favorite pieces for the finals at the NTD International Piano Competition at the Baruch Performing Arts Center on Sept. 28.
Alongside the Fantasie, she played Rachmaninoff’s Moments Musicaux.
“Even though he’s a 20th-century composer, his music is conservative, it is the Romantic period,” she said. “His music is magnificent. Many people know Rachmaninoff had big hands, so his music utilizes all the ranges and registers of the keyboard, so it sounds really magnificent.”
Lee said the competition had a warm and welcoming atmosphere that allowed her to forget she was competing, and for that she was grateful. But her favorite aspect of the competition was its focus on tradition, limiting the repertoire to that of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods.
During the semi-finals, contestants had their pick of Beethoven sonatas, a staple of the entire body of piano music. Many of the 15 contestants ended up performing the same piece, and Lee said with music so foundational as Beethoven, or Bach in the preliminaries, it’s immediately clear who possesses mature artistry and who needs more practice. When contestants have their pick of modern and lesser-known works, it’s easier to be flashy and different but still lack in skill.
“We need to go back to the traditional music sometimes to have that base,” Lee said. The traditional repertoire influences everything that came after it, she said, so it’s something we need to know.
For Lee, being a musician is about deeply understanding the composer’s original ideas, and expressing it skillfully enough for the audience to understand.
“I think it’s most important to be a good person, because playing music is to understand others, so we need to be a thoughtful person and understand others,” Lee said.