Described as “one of the leading pianists in Germany” by the Neue Muzikzeitung, Lydia Maria Bader has appealed to audiences worldwide through her thoughtful interpretations and energetic virtuosity. Her deep curiosity for different cultures and experiences has led her to travel extensively throughout China, where she discovered a love for Chinese classical music. Her third album, “Chinese Dreams”, is a consolidation of traditional arrangements by Chinese composers and European musings in Chinese settings. Bader seeks to make Chinese classical music more accessible to European audiences while paying homage to the country she has developed such a deep appreciation for.
Is it bittersweet to release Chinese Dreams in the midst of this pandemic?
Yes of course! I was so looking forward to playing all the release concerts and showing this baby of mine to the world, which isn’t happening right now. I was really sad about that.
How has life as a musician changed for you since the quarantine started?
Since all the release concerts were cancelled, I started recording this series on Youtube with a piece from the new CD every Friday. It’s easier to upload weekly when you have a theme because you only have to consider which pieces to play. I’ve been quite busy getting „teched up” because I wanted to improve the sound and video quality. For now, I have to breathe a bit after making this many videos before setting up my studio so that I have the possibility of using different backgrounds. I think during the summer holidays I’ll try and come up with some more possibilities.
How did you come across the piece that introduced you to Chinese repertoire?
I got the score for Glowing Red Morningstar Lilies from my agency. A few days before my first tour in China, they sent me the music and asked me to play it. They said, ”It’s very popular in China!” and then, “Go practice!” (laugh) I really fell in love with these pieces. They have such a captivating melody, and the whole mood of this melody for me is so beautiful because it has some melancholy but on the other hand it’s not really sad—it’s some of both, which I really like. I also played this as an encore in Germany and started to include it in some concert programs because I like to play some programs where there’s not such well-known music in it. Of course it’s difficult to play this kind of music in a Chopin recital, but if you play it with music from other countries that are not so well known for classical music, it fits well. The more I played in China, the more pieces I needed, so the agency sent me new pieces to play. I got really hooked because I thought wow, the second piece is almost as beautiful as the first piece! I didn’t know the composer then because it was all written in Chinese, and eleven years ago there were no Chinese translation apps for your phone. Now I’m really independent—I just scan it and my phone says it in German. So back then I didn’t know the composer but I could see at once that it was really well written, and I was thinking, oh my god, what else is there?
How did you begin to expand your repertoire of Chinese music?
I was really interested in playing more of this music after 2017, when I really fell in love with the country after my very long tours of China. After spending so much time there, a little piece of my heart just stayed there. I was luckily able to buy a book of 30 Chinese pieces while I was touring that was sold out everywhere else. I also started to learn a bit of Chinese—not enough to have a conversation with someone, but I wanted to at least have a basic understanding of how the language is structured. And now that everything is on the internet, it’s possible to get more information—because back in the day you couldn’t find any information about classical music from China.
How did you learn to perform pieces by Chinese composers in an authentic way?
I got my understanding of Chinese playing from other instruments. After playing Kangding Love Song with the singing saw, it was suddenly really clear how I should phrase it. I went to the concert hall to warm up and there was this guy with a saw on stage and I was like, “Okay?”
And he said, “Don’t worry, it’s a singing saw.”
And I was like, “Okay?”
He said he was the only singing saw player in the city, and that he came to the concert to ask if I could please play a song with him. We played the Kangding Love Song together, and suddenly I realised how I should phrase it. It’s very different from Western phrasing—for example, in Chinese music, you don’t stress syncopated notes but the main beat that occurs before it. I think this is very important in making sure you don’t sound like Brahms when you’re playing Silver Clouds Chasing the Moon! It is also important not to do too much rubato with the melody and just let the melody flow, because you can tell that many of the traditional melodies were for voice or wind instruments. We use a lot of agogic accents and ritardando in Germany, and in Chinese music it’s more about flow. We also have to be careful not to express the emotions too openly. Someone said something nice to me yesterday: that the music has a friendly pleasantness in it. The people in China are friendly but private with their inner emotions, which they keep to themselves and their close friends and family. I think with their music it’s the same. It’s not the Rachmaninoff type of “I feel this, I feel that; listen to it!” The music goes with the flow, and there’s a lot of emotion in it, but it’s not shown in the same way as it might be with Rachmaninoff and Brahms.
What has your experience learning Chinese been like?
I’ve been learning Chinese on and off for two years, and at first it was impossible for me to hear the difference in tones. I was really disappointed with my ear because people would always assume that it’s so easy for me to hear all the tones, but I couldn’t hear anything! I’d say, “I said that!”, and they’d say, “No you didn’t! Just repeat this sentence,” and I’d repeat it and they said, “No, you’d better speak English!” And then I started using that app that taught me syllable by syllable, learning how each one should sound. There’s so many kinds of methods on this app. You have to read only pinyin at first and then you listen to some videos of actual Chinese people talking, which you can put on “snail mode”. You also have to talk and the app is quite strict about whether you pronounce the words well. It’s quite cool!
What are some of the differences between classical concerts in China and in Europe?
The concerts were at first a little bit surprising because when I first started touring, people didn’t know as much about classical music. These concerts were just another event for them, especially in the region of my first tour. I would walk onstage and wait, because in Germany you would wait until the audience was quiet, but I waited and waited and nothing happened—they were just chatting! I thought maybe if I just started it would become quiet, but they never did. But they told me later that they traveled hundreds of kilometers to see a non-Asian piano player! It was a very special experience for me, but it’s not really that different anymore, and now you can’t tell if you’re playing for a very concentrated audience in China or in Germany. What was very new for me was that there is always a presenter for the concert, like a TV host—someone very flashy, who speaks very professionally and entertains the audience. Another thing is that there is no intermission for these concerts, because I was told that if the audience stands up they won’t come back! It’s not like in Germany, where you’d have a glass of champagne in the middle. Now when I perform in China there are intermissions, but there’s still some kind of event in the middle. For example, sometimes they have a little competition before the concert to see which children are allowed to play in the intermission. It’s really cute and the audience is really excited for this event because they feel like they can participate. Often I teach these children in the afternoon or morning before the concert, so I get to give masterclasses.
What are they like as students?
Very well behaved! It’s not like here in Germany. They’re very serious, sometimes a bit too serious. Of course the parents are quite behind this, especially with the piano since it’s so popular. What I always like to tell the children is to not only watch their fingers and what they are doing but to understand the music and really have some image in your head of what you want to express and what feelings the piece has. But the children are really cute and it’s really nice to be able to teach them.
There has been a boom in classical music in China, especially within younger generations. Do you think Western cultures can learn anything from that, or do you think that it’s the result of a cultural and historical difference that can’t be replicated?
Well, the special situation in China right now is that many people bring their children to classical concerts. This is the first generation where their children can grow up with classical music, because their parents—people my age—were still influenced by the cultural revolution. Now it’s possible for them to listen to the kind of music they want and it’s really important for them to be a part of their children’s education, so you don’t often see adults at concerts without their children. In Germany it’s completely the opposite; there are hardly any children at classical concerts unless there’s a children’s concert. The problem is that children experience in Europe that classical music isn’t for them, it’s only for older people. In China they grow up with classical music very naturally. Of course the concerts are more noisy, but what is more important? You have to decide if you want a concert where nobody is moving and there’s complete silence and concentration (which of course is nice) or if you want the new generation to experience it.
What were some of your most interesting experiences exploring the cities you’ve visited on tour?
Well, at first I was never allowed to go anywhere by myself because the people I was traveling with were quite protective of me. I still remember the first time I snuck out of the hotel alone! It was my first very long tour alone and my guide was busy so I thought, “Come on, let’s go!” So I went out, and I thought I was so brave for going out alone in China for the first time ever! I didn’t have an internet connection or anything, so I just walked around thinking about where to go. I eventually went to the seashore, which is actually where the concert hall was as well. The architecture of the concert halls is so special and beautiful in China, so much more beautiful than in Germany for the most part. So I went there to take pictures and tour the hall and I just really enjoyed exploring. I think really nice things happen after you make some friends—now when I’m in the city I already know some people, and it’s quite cool. When I was in Shenzhen I had a friend who took me and my tour guide through the city and we ended up seeing places you wouldn’t find as a tourist. We went to a restaurant on the other side of the city that we had to drive for two hours to get to—apparently that was the place for eating some dish. It was just some plastic chairs on the ground and it was very simple but the food was so delicious! It’s fun when you’re not just staying in a 4 or 5 star hotel but you can really go out and explore.
We also made some nice trips when I had a couple of days off to visit some interesting places. I really liked Mount Putuo, which is one of the four sacred mountains of Buddhism, and I had to travel there by boat. I’ve also been in China for both my birthday and New Year’s Eve, and by chance we celebrated in the same restaurant chain for both! I really enjoyed spending New Year’s Eve in Shanghai—it has a special energy for me. When you’re standing in the old part of Shanghai at night with all the lights and you look across the river to Pudong, it’s like you’re looking into the future. For us Germans it’s especially like the future because we couldn’t even imagine these types of buildings.
What are some of the different dishes you tried on tour?
I tried a lot of different things, because we traveled around a lot. I actually kept a food diary on the first tour. We were in the Southwest first, so the food was really spicy. Then when we traveled more east, it became sweeter and there was a lot of seafood, which I really like. It was really interesting how in every city the food is often completely different. I noticed that food in the North is actually very similar to here in Germany—I had a lot of potatoes, green beans, chicken stew, pancakes… it was quite funny when a friend of mine and I went to dinner together after a concert and she said, “This is like what my mom used to make,” and I said, “Mine too!” What a friend of mine liked very much that I didn’t like was silkworms, but generally I’m very curious about foreign food so I like trying foods that are very different.
Something I really liked from the beginning was the street markets. The first time I went there everyone told me that you should never eat food on the street, but when I saw all the different meats and fruits I thought, “No way, this looks delicious!”
Is there anywhere else you’ve traveled that has been significant for you?
My one year Erasmus exchange in Paris. Paris is for us Europeans like the capital of beauty and romance and language and come on, it’s Paris! For me it was amazing having my own real apartment in Paris—I was living in a dorm for musicians before—and it was amazing to have this incredible city all by yourself. In Munich it was quite difficult to go to concerts as a student because the ticket prices were so high and it was difficult to have access to student tickets, but in Paris you’d just look at the newspaper and think, “Okay, where am I going today?” And there would be three big orchestra concerts and a couple of small concerts in beautiful halls, and you knew that if you went there you’d get student tickets, so I got to listen to so many amazing concerts. So that was great and I also found some good friends through the program. It was an amazing experience. I also think it was helpful because people in Germany are not always very tolerant when foreigners come and they can’t express themselves and have a different way of life, and it’s healing when you yourself are in that position once. I didn’t speak a lot of French—I learnt it in school but I was pretty bad—and I arrived there and I had to do everything in French! I had to open a bank account, and find an apartment, and all these practical things, and suddenly you find yourself in the position of being a foreigner.
You were recently a part of the world premiere of Gerd Kühl’s Corona Meditation, a chamber music composition performed live over the internet by 58 pianists. How was the experience of recording chamber music over the internet?
It was actually very moving. At first I thought it was chaos because nothing worked like it was supposed to during the rehearsal! We were supposed to only hear ourselves but it didn’t work, so we heard all 60 pianists at the same time. But it was a moving experience because of the score. Half of it was written out and at the end you could move freely with the music, so we got really creative. It was beautiful because we were all listening to each other, and it was amazing that still even though there was so much bad connection and bad sound quality and chaos, we were still able to react to each other. The piece really gets to you—it has a special energy. Even my cats would always lie down next to me when I practiced it!
Do you have any advice for young musicians?
In Europe, we have a problem of people saying, “Oh no, you just don’t do that,” or, “We’ve always done it like this,” and using tradition to create strict rules. It doesn’t matter! Just do what you want to do with the music. This is the nice thing about China; they see where everything comes from, but they still try to do something of their own, using all these traditions and customs. Don’t get yourself sucked into this ivory tower—now is a new time. Especially with COVID-19, the whole concert situation is changing, and we’ll see how it influences us in the next year. I think streaming concerts not only from home but from other venues will be part of our future, so I think the most important thing is to be open and to not get sucked into old traditions. Be open, be curious!
Text: ©Jordan Hadrill