For pianist Emiko Edwards, playing Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto in the Bravura Philharmonic Orchestra Holiday Concert this month will be a homecoming of sorts.
Not only will she be performing in Plainsboro, where she attended High School North, but the concert’s conductor, Chiu-Tze Lin, was one of her piano teachers when she was a teen.
The last time Edwards collaborated with Lin in a concert was when she was 11 and played a Mozart concerto with Lin’s orchestra in Manalapan (that was around the time when she won first prize at the 18th International Young Artist Piano Competition in Washington).
Because Edwards, 25, likes to match what she is wearing to what she is performing, she will add gold to her usual black, which “acts as a clean slate against the sound I am creating.” She says in an email, “The gold will highlight the celebratory nature of the piece and the overall brilliance of the sound.”
The concert will take place on Sunday, Dec. 3, at 7 p.m. at Princeton Alliance Church.
Playing a concerto with the West Windsor-based Bravura Philharmonic Orchestra reminds Edwards of her last concert in the area, which also involved a concerto—Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. She performed it as a senior with the student orchestra at High School North, under conductor John Enz, who is still teaching there.
Edwards, who grew up in West Windsor, started playing piano at age 5 or 6. She says of her early attraction to the piano: “My mom claims she saw me messing around with an electronic keyboard and thought, ‘Maybe we’ll get her piano lessons.’”
But she may have been drawn to that keyboard simply because she grew up in a house full of music.
“My dad loved to play the drums and we actually have three drum sets in our house—two acoustic and one electronic,” she says. “He would play in the basement with his amplifiers and the sound would come up out of the air vents. As a result I was exposed to almost every genre of music from an early age—rock, jazz, etc.”
So they bought Edwards a Mason & Hamlin upright piano and signed her up for private lessons privately with Ray Landers, a well-known piano teacher in the area. At about age 7, she started to study with Ingrid Clarfield, a piano professor at Westminster Choir College.
“She didn’t want to take me at the beginning because I couldn’t read music very well—I was doing it mostly by ear,” Edwards recalls. But she worked very hard and after a year with Clarfield, she earned first place in New Jersey in piano for her age group.
“One of the first things she taught me was how to take a bow and to tell yourself, ‘I am fabulous,’” Edwards says. Not only was Clarfield very supportive, but “she really taught you to enjoy what you were doing, to enjoy the music.”
Edwards always enjoyed performing, but when she was younger she didn’t like to practice and found it a little lonely. Practicing, she says, “was out of a necessity, because I did enjoy performing I had to practice.”
At age 12, she actually took a break from the piano, because she felt uninspired and didn’t want to practice. “It wasn’t until I saw a concerto concert given by other kids my age that I remembered just how much I loved performing,” she says. “That love for performing was what brought me back to the music.”
After Clarfield, she studied with Chiu-tze Lin and sporadically with Lin’s sister, Chiu-ling Lin. At 16, she auditioned for and was accepted by the Juilliard Pre-College program, in New York City, where she got more serious about her music.
“Before that, I thought I was never going to major in music, but I was there every Saturday with people who loved doing the same thing I did—people just like me,” she says.
At Juilliard she got to take different kinds of classes in addition to piano performance, like theory and ear training, “getting more of a music overview.” Being in New York, she said it was also easy to drop by a New York Philharmonic concert after classes.
Edwards, though, was not all piano all the time. She played the cello in the high school orchestra and did lots of high school athletics—track, tennis, swimming, and fencing. She also played competitive travel soccer, and, even though she had to get to New York by 11 a.m. on Saturdays for Juilliard Pre-College, she managed to make it to her 8 a.m. soccer practices, hurry home, take a shower and drive into New York with her mother.
At Juilliard, for both Pre-College and as an undergraduate, she studied piano with Julian Martin. But after seven years at Juilliard and in New York when she was ready to decide where to get her master’s degree, she says, “I decided I had been there, done that—the whole New York scene, the same school for seven years.”
So, to get out of her comfort zone, she moved to London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she studied with Irish pianist Ronan O’Hora. “I did it on a gut instinct—this feels like it is right; I can imagine it being a good thing,” she says.
It was the best decision she could have made, she says, because it opened her to different experiences, among them, performances that she recorded and broadcast on BBC3, and an appearance with the Cambridge Graduate Orchestra.
Also, after returning home on weekends during college to teach piano privately to several students, she felt like she was finally going out on her own. And she loved spending time with her peers, who came from different cultures and thought about music in different ways.
Edwards says her vision for the future has been pretty consistent. “I love performing, but I also love teaching,” she says. Right now she is in Philadelphia at Temple University, studying for a doctorate in piano performance with Sara Davis Buechner and Charles Abramovic. When she is done, she says, she would really love to have a teaching position in a university and at the same time keep performing.
Teaching has been a constant in her life. First, the private students, starting at age 16. Then she was a teaching fellow at Juilliard, doing five classes a week in “secondary piano”—for people who were not piano majors, but needed to learn to play the piano.
In London, where she couldn’t teach because of visa restrictions, she really missed teaching, but taught in the summer at the Bravura summer music program for middle and high school students.
For three summers, including while she was in grad school, she taught piano, music appreciation and music theory in the Bravura summer music program, created by the Lin sisters for talented high school and middle school students. Currently she is a teaching assistant at Temple University.
Having studied with a variety of teachers has, and continues to be, important to Edwards as her relationship to music evolves.
“The more people I have giving me input—it forces you to think more about different opinions and different attitudes toward the music, and it opens you up to more options,” she says.
Edwards has also contributed to her community, as artistic director for The Five Boroughs Performing Arts Series from 2011 to 2012, a concert series dedicated to spreading dance, music and drama throughout New York City. She also organized and executed concerts in the Bronx, Queens, and Lower Manhattan in partnership with the Boys Club of New York.
The way Edwards’ family ended up in West Windsor is unique. Her mother, Yoshi, is Japanese and, while on vacation, she met Edwards’ father, Mark, at a New York Knicks game. Her mother returned to Japan the next day, and, Edwards says, “he was courting her with letters.”
A year later she returned, and after a week together, they were asking each other, “Should we get married?” The answer was yes, so she returned to Japan to prepare for the wedding.
When her mother was pregnant with Edwards, her father was an attorney in New York, and they lived in an apartment in the East Village. When her mother saw a big rat walk by, she decided the East Village was not a great place to raise a baby, and not too long before Edwards’ birth at the Medical Center at Princeton, they moved to West Windsor.
Edwards has a younger sister, Marisa, who is also a pianist and studied with Chiu-Tze Lin, then completed a double degree in piano performance and business at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She is currently working in marketing research in Chapel Hill.
Her mother has an online business selling American designer clothing that is not available in Japan to Japanese women. Edwards says, “The West Windsor-Plainsboro Post Office can recognize all of us now.”
When Chiu-Tze Lin invited Edwards to play in the holiday concert, which will also feature an audience sing along, she gave her a choice of what she would like to play.
Edwards says she chose the Emperor Concerto, “because it’s very grand; it is in a major key, which is very uplifting; and the last movement is like a party.” Noting that one of her teachers describes the Emperor as “pure joy,” Edwards says, “For a Christmas concert, I thought it would be perfect.”
Tickets for the show are $15 for advance purchase, or $20 ($18 seniors/students) at the door. VIP seating is $30. To purchase tickets, go to bravuraphil.org or call (609) 933-4729, (908) 420-1248 or (732) 792-2070.