Chicago pianist featuring a world of contemporary classical composers during Southeast Alaska tour

By Mark Sabbatini

Juneau Empire

When Phoebe Wu refers to modern music she’s not talking about Taylor Swift, so people not flocking to the pop star’s concert movie this weekend can get a lesson about an entirely different world of possibilities during a concert by the Chicago pianist at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center.

Wu is scheduled to perform works by a variety of contemporary classical composers with different backgrounds ranging from a self-described “avant folk vocalist” with a repertoire of “feminist rager-lullabies” to a Chinese man renowned for blending his country’s traditional music with American modernism.

“The structure of each piece probably will remind people of similar classical music, similar Western European styles, but a lot of the harmonies will be different,” she said in an interview Sunday. “There’s a lot of focus on rhythm. And then each piece is quite different from each other, too. So there’s going to be a big variety.”

The pay-as-you-can Juneau concert is part of a four-show “No Longer Very Clear” tour in Southeast Alaska that includes stops in Sitka on Saturday, Skagway on Oct. 19 and Haines on Oct. 21. Wu said she has been in the region before, having taught and performed at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, and wanted a more expansive experience.

“My main thinking was I wanted to do a small tour to some places in Alaska that may get a lot of performances through (or) may not get so many through coming through their town,” she said, “And I really wanted to make it for the people who live there, So if I go in the summer people are busy, they’re opening up shops for tourists, they’re giving tours there — and what tourist is going to come and see a Chicago-based pianist on their cruise? That doesn’t quite make sense either. So I thought I would do it in a time where people might have more free time who actually live in Alaska.”

Wu, listed as a “pianist/teacher” at the top of her website, collaborates on projects with dancers and other performance artists in addition to musicians throughout the country. She’s also performed in a variety of settings ranging from contemporary chamber ensembles to duets.

She said she feels “a very strong personal connection” to modern classical composers because of how she’s able to interpret their concepts and sounds, a means for her to express creativity beyond crafting her own compositions, which she hasn’t done in a long time.

“It’s a very different relationship with the music to make it versus to interpret it,” she said. “I really do love the interpretation of music. And I think there’s so much creative freedom in that type of art as well.”

The names of the composers whose works Wu will play are likely obscure to most people: Annika Socolofsky, Gabriela Lena Frank, Lou Harrison, Chou Wen-Chung, Florence Price, Joan Tower and Ruth Crawford Seeger. But Wu said each has had distinctive and broad influences.

Socolofsky, for instance, is a vocalist described by The Guardian as “just the right balance between edgy precision and freewheeling exuberance.” Her official bio states her feminist folk project “confront centuries of damaging lessons taught to young children by retelling old lullaby texts for a new, queer era.”

“She and I are friends, and I find her music very intriguing,” Wu said. “I thought it’d be great to bring something super-recent to the program.”

Other composers are from the West Coast with that implied contemporary vibe, while Wen-Chung — who died in 2019 at the age of 96 — helped others fuel American modernism as he “wrote mostly for Western instruments, but made them bend single notes to accommodate the microtonal flexibility of Chinese music,” according to the New York Times.

Wu’s concert is part of the Con Brio Chamber Series, which features a range of local and visiting composers in solo and ensemble performances. Sally Schlichting, artistic director of the series, said Wednesday, said Wu contacted her after finding out about the series from a mutual acquaintance in Sitka, since she was already planning a Southeast tour and was seeking out possibilities in Juneau.

“It really fits well with the kind of programming that I like to do with the Con Brio Chamber Series,” Schlichting said, adding “I really feel strongly my mission at the Con Brio Chamber Series is to deliver more chamber music to general audiences.”

“I like to showcase newer and contemporary, and lesser-known works and lesser-known composers,” she said. “Because I think that the greats get a lot of attention — the Beethoven’s and Mozart’s, and so on — and there’s just a wealth of music from newer generations, and non-male, non-white composers. And I just really feel the need to bring those to audiences — there’s treasures in there that would otherwise go unknown.”