Music, like art, can happen anywhere at anytime. It can occur when it’s least expected. No doubt in their time, Beethoven, Wagner, Liszt, Chopin and even Mozart were at first unknown and ignored. Yet regardless of time, place or circumstances, talent shines through no matter what. And, this is why pianist Dale Tsang is looking forward to performing online the works of living composers this Friday, Oct. 2 as part of the “Piano Break” concert series sponsored by the Ross McKee Foundation.
“I played all the ‘dead guys’ since I was four years old,” said Tsang. She grew up in a household that insisted it was important for children to learn a musical instrument. “That I did and played dutifully every day, learning and enjoying much of the huge traditional repertoire,” she said.
It was while she was at University of Southern California obtaining her Bachelor’s degree that she discovered contemporary composers. “They were my friends and classmates and professors, and I found their works really satisfying to perform. I had played all the classics, all the masters and so in asking myself, ‘what’s next?’ I then realized that in joining with the contemporary composers right there in my midst, I could venture into the next frontier of great music.”
She went on to complete her Masters degree at University of Michigan and her Doctorate in Music from Rice University, all the while seeking challenging and contemporary music around her. Currently Tsang is part of the faculty at Laney College, teaching music students at various levels.
A seasoned and well-traveled performer at venues throughout Europe, Asia and the United States, Tsang has received accolades and awards at numerous competitions and international events. Throughout her distinguished career and music-academic achievements, she has never lost sight of the “unsung” or rather the “unheard” composer.
“Many new compositions simply don’t get played. Even an inspired and important work might have one premiere and then… nothing. If it isn’t heard widely, it doesn’t get known.”
Tsang’s fear is that if a contemporary composer’s work is not played, spotlighted, it can get lost. “To bring a composer’s work out and place it in the spotlight, especially when they are still living, is very gratifying,” she said.
She mentioned that in her work with contemporary composers “stuff (compositions) can get buried in an attic or in a forgotten old box in a basement.” What is really thrilling is helping the family of a contemporary composer or even the composer her/himself realize how precious the work is.
This is what Tsang does almost daily for one very talented contemporary composer she knows…her husband David Garner. In addition to his varied work as a composer, David Garner is Professor of Composition, Chamber Music and Theory at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
“I met Dale in 2012 when she joined Ensemble for These Times (E4TT) as pianist, replacing virtuoso collaborative pianist Kristin Pankonin, who was ailing,” Garner said.
“Kristin was a friend of mine – we went back many years. She died of cancer in 2014,” said Garner taking a moment to recollect.
“Dale and I worked together along with the other members of E4TT from 2012 until this year. Dale has a real passion for playing living composers’ music,” said Garner. “A large part of E4TT’s mission is commissioning new works, which is why her collaboration with them was so perfect. To my surprise, we recently got married! We then decided that we wanted to put our efforts elsewhere.”
Looking forward, he and Tsang are beginning to plan for an EP of all of Garner’s solo piano music. The EP will hopefully debut in 2022.
“Her connection to the Ross McKee Foundation is through its director, Nicholas Pavkovic, said Garner. Nick is a composition alumnus of the San Francisco Conservatory, and in 2018, he organized an all-Bach program, called ‘24 by 24’, in which he asked Dale to perform.”
Garner also pointed out that Pavkovic and the Ross McKee Foundation supported many of Tsang’s E4TT projects. “This past summer Nick asked Dale if she would be interested in performing in the foundation’s ‘Piano Break series,’ and naturally she agreed,” said Garner.
“The Foundation is thrilled to be able to continue Piano Break through the end of the year,” said Nicholas Pavkovic, Executive Director of the Ross McKee Foundation. “The Summer Series beat all our estimates for audience attendance, exclaimed Pavkovic. The artists provided thoughtful, compelling, and polished programs. We couldn’t be prouder of the results,” he said.
“Created to provide Bay Area pianists with paid performance opportunities during the COVID-19 crisis, said Pavkovic, each Piano Break concert consists of a short pre-recorded concert (about 45 minutes in length) and premieres weekly on the Ross McKee YouTube channel.”
Four of the five contemporary composers represented in the Piano Break concert program for this Oct. 2 currently teach, or have taught, at the SF Conservatory of Music.
Among them are Elinor Armer and Alden Jenks. Tsang spoke glowingly about them both and their work. “Elinor’s sweet merging of Schubertian elegance with a contemporary flair is charming,” she said. And she described Jenks’ ‘Piano Ballads’ as “luscious, dark and gorgeous, extremely jazzy and moody.”
“I aim for a variety of personalities in the music I choose, I aim not to be too specific,” said Tsang. “Only that I am always looking for something different, diverse, new, and inspired.”
Fortunately she has found much of this in Garner, who has composed some pieces just for her. “David’s an accomplished pianist and has composed a wide and wonderful repertoire. He even recently finished a full-length opera,” she said. “But like so many contemporary composers, his works get overlooked in the shuffle or set aside because of their technical challenges. I did a little bit of composing while in school, so I know how difficult it can be. It takes a lot of dedicated work. This is another reason why I want to focus on contemporary composers: to encourage them to complete, edit, and debut their works.”
Garner doesn’t play piano much anymore because of arthritis. Yet with Tsang as a partner, his music can be heard.
“I envision my role as a musician as that of an interpreter-translator of a composers’ work. I bring my wealth of experience learning and interpreting centuries of music into a symbiosis with the composer’s ideas. For a contemporary composer, I really take it to the next level and strive for a great performance so that their work can be heard, known and appreciated.”
The ‘Piano Break’ concert series supports Bay Area pianists who have lost performance opportunities and venues to COVID-19. Tune in online for the concert this Friday, Oct. 2 at 5:00 PM, via YouTube. To access the streaming live visit the Piano Break posting at this web link.