Paris Meets Hong Kong: Canadian pianist Philip Chiu takes listeners on a musical Voyage

On February 9th, the ATMA Classique record label released a recoding called Voyages that features the outstanding Canadian pianist Philip Chiu performing the music of Debussy and Canadian composer Alice Ho.

Philip Chiu is no stranger to the recording studio, as he is about to turn the corner on 40 years of age, he has already recorded prolifically, for various labels such as, ATMA Classique, Analeka, CBC Music and Warner. He has made recordings with the phenomenal cellist Cameron Crozman, star violinist Kerson Leong, and has recorded a solo CD called Fables that won Chiu a Juno award for best Classical solo album in 2023.

Aside from his recordings; he is the pianist for Ensemble made In Canada; Canada’s premiere piano quartet. He has also performed with the likes of Emanuel Pahud, James Ehnes, Raphael Wallfisch, and Jonathan Crow. He’s toured Canada 14 times with the support of Prairire Debut, Jeunesses Musicales, and Debut Atlantic, and created a Collaborative Piano Program at the esteemed Domaine Forget in Quebec…simply, he is on the top tier of pianists and piano collaborators on the scene today.

The CD Voyages consists of Debussy’s Petite Suite, Book 1 of his Images, and the Estampes. Adding to the program is brand new music that was commissioned by Chiu from the Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho. He performs Ho’s three pieces that are collectively called Hong Kong Nostalgia. Each of the three pieces; Connaught Centre, Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery and Night Markets are musical portraits of well-known locations in Hong Kong.

When it comes to performing French music Chiu is in his element. As Chiu says, “For me as a pianist it is the music that gives the most joy. It’s the music that I think offers such beautiful, unexpected colors for the piano and that’s what I really love to explore.”

One of the other big components that acted as a catalyst for the making of this recording is Chiu’s family history and the feeling of  wanting to re-connect with where his family came from.

Chiu and his family came to Canada from Hong Kong when he was three years old. As a child in school he wanted to assimilate and in many respects lost his Chinese identity. Describing himself as a somewhat apostate Chinese boy, Chiu says, “From the outside and the innocent bystander… I might as well be an authority on Chinese culture, when really I am kind of the furthest thing from.”

In regards to the music of Debussy he goes on to say “I want to look at someone like Debussy who was so much inspired by other cultures...cultures that they knew very little about. Debussy like other composers of the time had a great interest in the Orient and the east…and one could take the view ’Wow how offensive that they wrote this music that sort of sounds Asian-ee!’ I like to take a different view of it…given the context of what we’re looking at… Debussy was no less an authority on what Chineseness is than I am…like what does it mean that I’m born Chinese…what do I really know about where I’m from.”

Chiu has begun to ask his family questions about his Chinese heritage and background,  and in some respects drawn parallels to himself and the musical influences of Debussy. This self-introspection and viewing of the music through that particular prism has created some fabulous results. The color palette , and contrasts that Chiu creates on this recording are truly magical. For Chiu this is something that pays a lot of attention to. “I just try to explore any kind of other colors that it can be…anything else that it can be. And what kind of textures are possible,” says Chiu. The result is breathtaking.

kdhk/lPhoto Courtesy of Brent Calis

The Alice Ping Yee Ho pieces called Hong Kong Nostalgia, are wonderful miniatures that work as companion pieces to Debussy’s Estampes, which is exactly what Chiu had in mind when he commissioned the music. “For this disc Voyages, I wanted to find someone who would create a work based on the Estampes as a companion piece…[Estampes] is sort of this travel log. I wanted someone who would create another three movement work...not necessarily mirroring everything…. but would take everything and really show it from a Hong Kong perspective.”

Alice Ho turned out to be the perfect composer for the task Chiu had in mind. She is amongst the very best of Canadian composers. She is also originally from Hong Kong so she could internalize and understand what Chiu wanted. The three pieces she composed, Connaught Centre, Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery and Night Markets, are wonderfully colorful, and full of interesting and accessible textures that draw the listener in. They act as the perfect counterpart to the music of Debussy, and are worth listing to again and again.

Philip Chiu with his recording Voyages has done it once more. He has created a marvelous CD that is a must have for anyone wanting to hear Debussy the way it needs and should to be played.