Pianists Catherine Lan and Tao Lin discuss what it’s like being a concertizing couple.
By Bob Weinberg
Portrait by Edward Linsmier
Shoulder to shoulder, Tao Lin and Catherine Lan share a piano bench on the stage of Opera Naples’ Wang Center. The husband-and-wife team dives into a high-energy Dvoák composition, one that the 19th-century Czech maestro wrote specifically for piano duo. Attired in a dark suit and matching shirt and playing the dramatic left-hand parts, Lin is quite animated, the music coursing through him like an electrical current. Lan, to his right, in a formfitting black-and-gold gown, is coolly elegant as the notes ripple and flow from her fingers. On occasion, she darts her left hand to the score, expertly flipping a page without interrupting the music.
Captured on video last December, the dazzling four-hander was a preview to Opera Naples’ Beaux Arts Chamber Music Series, which the couple created in 2008. This season they have lined up performances by the Shanghai Quartet, the Aspen String Trio and the Ying Quartet. While each has carved out a sizable reputation for their respective concertizing abilities, their personal and professional chemistry is evident while side by side at the keyboard.
In person, the Coral Springs-based couple reflects that same joie de vivre. Sitting in a corner of the sunny, wood-floored Steinway Piano Gallery in Coral Gables, they laugh easily while relating stories of their lives and careers. Despite a lifetime of accolades that’s followed them from Shanghai (Lin) and Taiwan (Lan), where the spotlight has sought them out since early childhood, they remain remarkably unaffected and deeply passionate about the classical canon that they’ve performed around the world.
Professor Lin—a Steinway artist, whose framed photo graces the adjacent recital space wall alongside the likes of Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr.—and Dr. Lan first met at Palm Beach Atlantic University, where Lan is on the faculty. (She also teaches at Broward College.) “We met as working musicians,” Lin recounts. “I was adjudicating a competition, and she was there helping her class. The best things happen by accident.”
“And that’s where I’m working now,” Lan adds, explaining that she teaches in the same room where she met her husband of eight years. Having received her master’s at Indiana University, she came to the University of Miami for her doctoral studies. “I just fell in love with this environment and Coral Gables,” she says. And also, of course, she fell in love with her prodigiously gifted husband, who had preceded her at UM and started teaching at Lynn University after receiving his degree.
The two certainly have plenty in common. Lin began playing piano at age 4; four years later, he was admitted to the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where both of his parents worked. Lan was just 3 when she began her training. At age 8, she was enrolled in a program sponsored by the government of Taiwan, where she excelled on oboe and piano. She made her international debut that same year in Japan, having won a competition for original composition. Both continued to stand out in their teen years: Lin went on to perform the Chinese premiere of Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, while Lan continued to wow judges and audiences at international competitions and festivals after her family immigrated to Vancouver.
The world into which they both were born has changed dramatically. “China back in the 1980s was still pretty closed,” Lin says. Since then, materials available to student musicians have grown exponentially. “This generation is very lucky,” says the pianist, who teaches at the Shanghai Conservatory when he returns each year to visit his parents. “Back then, we had to claw our way for better resources.”
Lin and Lan are frequently asked to name their favorite composers, to which they respond the same way: Whoever wrote the music they’re playing at the moment. Lin’s vast repertoire indicates a propensity toward central and northern European composers, including the three B’s—Bach, Brahms and Beethoven— as well as Schumann, Schubert and Mahler. “The ideal for pianists is that their current work is what they should put their heart and soul into,” he contends.
Lan agrees. “I’m actually doing a whole Chopin program at Carnegie Hall in April,” she says. “It’s my Carnegie debut.”
“It’s a nice hall. You will like it,” Lin jokes. Having played there himself, he fully understands the venue’s import. He also understands the pre-concert jitters, the presence of ghosts looking over the pianist’s shoulder. “The funny thing is, the moment you sit down at the piano, all of the surrounding stuff just sort of fades away,” he says. “And it’s just between you and the instrument.”
Originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue.