Gena Raps: You are a dynamo making music. Every time I open the Internet, I see you and your work: to name just a few projects, Her/Music; Her/Story on WQXR, Heritage & Harmony on WQXR, appearances on Asian Americans of New York and New Jersey on PBS, and a new recording with Carter Brey, principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic.
Let’s start at the beginning. You are first generation from China. When and why did your parents emigrate?
Donna Weng Friedman: My parents were both born and raised in China. My mother was born in Shanghai. She came from one of the wealthiest families in Shanghai. She left separately from my dad, who was born and raised in a very poor family from Ningbo, China. They met in this country; each fled during the Japanese occupation.
They were lucky to get out!
DWF: My father had to leave. During the Japanese occupation all the Chinese schools were closed and the kids had to learn Japanese history and language. My father was upset about that, so he set up an underground school to teach the children Chinese history and language. It was successful until the authorities found out.
Your father and you have a history of activism.
DWF: When the school was closed my father was imprisoned. This is an amazing story. One of the Japanese guards was married to a Chinese woman whose son was my father’s student. He came to my father in the middle of the night and set him free and told him, “You’ve got to leave now. You cannot come back.” That’s what my father did.
He came to this country with nothing. Literally nothing. It was hard. His English wasn’t very good but he landed a manual labor job with long hours for little pay, and he found a little dark room in a basement to sleep in at night. He was depressed. He saved his pennies. He ate nothing but peanut butter and rice every day. That’s all he could afford. After several months he saved enough money to buy himself a radio and listened to a world of glorious music he had never heard before, from Nat King Cole to Chopin. He said it changed his life.
In fact, when I was about 12 or 13—I remember it was a summer evening—I was practicing my Chopin “Waltz in C# Minor.” My father came home, and stood listening for a moment. He ran into the kitchen to grab my mother who was making dinner. They came into my room dancing. They’re dancing and dancing and dancing. I was so happy. There was so much joy in the room. When the piece was over he looked at me and said, “You know, that was the first piece I ever heard on my radio when I came to this country.” He said he realized then that his hopes and dreams had come true.
We have many Asian musicians, especially from China, at Mannes, where we both teach. This was not the case when we were children in the 1950s. I’m first generation, too, from Europe. Studying classical music was treasured and a priority in my home. Obviously classical music was important in your home too. What Chinese customs did you grow up with?
DWF: We celebrated the Lunar New Year every year. Before the Lunar New Year celebration the house had to be cleaned spotlessly, because you can’t clean the house on New Year’s Day. You can’t use scissors and you can’t get a haircut. Those customs are driven by superstition. The best part was the food. My mother would make 10 courses, because 10 is a round, lucky number. She would make one vegetable dish that had to have 10 different vegetables in it.
We would have Long Life Noodles, which we would also have on every birthday. These noodles are handmade, one noodle pulled without breaking or you have to throw it away. You can’t eat it. You have to make another batch. The Long Life Noodles were a very important part of the Chinese tradition.
We also had red good luck packets. My parents would put in a dollar and at midnight give one to each of us. We would sleep on it for good luck.
I did all these wonderful traditions with my kids. Now that my parents are gone, it’s important to me because it keeps part of them alive.
How did you find your way to the piano?
DWF: When I was six years old my pet parakeet, Green Spot, died. Even though I didn’t take care of him, since I was too little, my older brother, who is nine years older, took care of him. I was devastated. It was my first pet. I could not stop crying, and here we go again with the Chinese superstition. My mother begged me to stop crying. She said, “It’s bad luck to cry this much. You need to stop.” But I couldn’t stop crying. I was in tears for a week missing him.
Then my parents bought a piano for my brother to start piano lessons. He wasn’t good at the piano; he kept making mistakes. I couldn’t take it, so I would play for him the right way. They figured, “I think she needs to take lessons,” and six months later I was at Juilliard Pre-College.
You started Juilliard at seven?
DWF: I was the youngest pianist at that time.
My brother started at seven, too.
DWF: I loved it. I had the best time at Juilliard, which was then on Claremont Avenue.
How were you treated?
DWF: I had the most wonderful teacher, Jean Rose, who recently passed away. It was the first time I was surrounded by other kids like me who loved music.
I had the same experience. I was so happy to be there on Saturdays.
DWF: That was the most fun day! And I had a theory teacher named Ruth Schaefer. She scared the bejesus out of me but was really great. She called me Peanut because I was so small. I am still petite, but back then I was really tiny. I couldn’t reach the pedal for a long time. All the kids started calling me Peanut, and I didn’t like that.
When I was 10 or 11 I started performing professionally and getting reviews. The critics, although they were complimentary, would always mention my height. I would get reviews that would say, “Small in stature, great in talent,” and that bothered me. I was wondering, why couldn’t they just focus on my playing? Every review would talk about my size, my little hands.
My mother did something great. She took me to hear Alicia de Larrocha. She was this petite woman, about four-foot-ten. She came onstage and played like a dynamo, and I was amazed. That’s what role models do for you.
I started following her career, and I heard an interview on the radio, and at one point she said, “Don’t ever think that small girls can’t become great pianists,” and I thought she was talking to me. Those are the things that mean so much. A couple years later I heard Mitsuko Uchida play Mozart, and then I finally got to see the first Asian female pianist perform.
That’s one of the reasons why I’m creating an education program with the National Women’s History Museum, because I feel that all children, but especially our girls of color who don’t have the opportunity to go to concerts, need role models. They need to see themselves in the faces of extraordinary women in all arts.
Why did you choose to go to Princeton, an academic college, instead of Juilliard?
DWF: That was a no-brainer. I’d gone to Juilliard for ten years, and I’d performed and won every competition. I performed a lot. In my senior year of high school, I was the first winner of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra competition, so I toured with them. I wanted to learn more about other things, to become a better musician, a better artist, but also, I just wanted to learn. I’d been to the Pre-College for ten years, and I didn’t think that going on for four years at Juilliard was going to be a challenge.
I did the exact same thing. I also was studying with someone who wasn’t teaching. He was a performing artist, and I didn’t want to leave him and I wanted an academic degree. I wanted to read. I was curious.
DWF: That was the best decision I ever made, because besides just learning so much from the classes there, the professors were wonderful, and the people that I met have remained friends and colleagues. I cannot even tell you what going to Princeton has meant to me. The Princeton Alumni Weekly recently featured a full page “action”picture of me at the piano in their magazine.
You’ve studied with legendary teachers. How was Nadia Boulanger when you worked with her? Were you living in Paris? What did you learn from her? She usually taught composers.
DWF: I was studying at the Fontainebleau School of Music and Fine Arts in 1978. It was her last summer on this earth and she wasn’t well. It was an experience of a lifetime. My practice room was in the chateau overlooking the gardens.
I remember the first time I met her, as she was introducing herself to all of the students. She took my hands, as she was in a wheelchair and was blind. She felt my hands and said, “These are the hands of Rubenstein.” I looked at my hands and I was thinking, “I didn’t think so, but I’ll take it!”
Then, three days later I received a handwritten note from Mademoiselle Boulanger – we called her Mademoiselle – inviting me to have a piano lesson with her. My heart started racing. I was excited and nervous. I thought, “What am I going to play?”
I went to her apartment and the door was open. Her assistant said, “Come in.” I went into her living room and I waited. It seemed like forever, it may only have been five or ten minutes, and then her assistant came out and said, “Mademoiselle isn’t feeling very well today,” and I thought, “Oh, phew! I can leave.” “She would like you to play for her, but she’s going to stay in her bedroom with the door open.” I almost fainted. I’ve never experienced anything like that. I sat down at the piano and played.
My back was to the door that was open, and she was in bed. I started to play Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue.” After about forty seconds, I hear a frail voice, really straining, and she started saying something. I thought “What do I do?” Do I stop? Do I go on? I kept playing, and I hear it again. Then I stop, and silence, so I keep playing. Then I hear it again and I’m thinking, “Oh, my gosh. What do I do?”
I kept playing and I finished the entire piece and waited. The assistant came out and said, “Thank you very much for playing for Mademoiselle today. She really enjoyed it.” I started leaving and the voice of Mademoiselle screams out in French to the assistant. The assistant says, “Wait one minute.”
She went inside and I’m waiting again for what seems like an eternity, and out comes the assistant wheeling Mademoiselle. She starts talking to me in French, and telling me about color and inner voices and phrasing and breathing like a singer. Then she takes my hand and says, “Trois morceaux,” and I’m thinking three things, that must be the things she told me. Then she said in French that I’m so gifted and that I must always continue performing and playing, but listen to singers, go hear every singer possible. And luckily for me, that summer, Gerard Souzay was giving a master class and, boy, did I learn a lot.
After that I had two more lessons which were not quite as dramatic. They were wonderful. She was just so kind. But it wasn’t until years later, when I was telling this to a friend of mine, and she said, “‘Trois morceaux’ – those are the pieces written by Lili Boulanger. She was telling you to learn those pieces.”
Lili is her sister.
DWF: I didn’t know that. We didn’t have internet back then, so I couldn’t find the music anywhere. But when I created Her/Music; Her/Story, my program on WQXR that shines a light on women composers past and present, the second episode was called “The Three Bs 2.0” and of course, we included both Nadia Boulanger and Lili Boulanger in that episode. I performed a piece from Lili Boulanger’s “Trois Morceaux” in her honor and in memory of Nadia Boulanger.
We both had amazing mentors. Who and what were your other memorable mentoring experiences?
DWF: Radu Lupu. I had the privilege of working with him. Through a mutual friend, he agreed to come hear me play for twenty minutes when he was in the city. Every year he would come to play in Carnegie Hall or Avery Fisher Hall. He came to my studio apartment, and I played the Bach “Toccata in D Major.” He told me that my Bach is much better than his; he doesn’t play Bach. And then he said, “I have an appointment. I have to do an interview now, but can I come back later?”
He leaves and, like an idiot, I went to my students’ homes to teach lessons, one after the other. I just kept on teaching. I should have stayed home and practiced, but I didn’t. At that time I was also preparing for my New York debut at the 92nd Street Y, and I was going door to door to my student’s homes. You don’t think clearly when you’re young, and you’re thinking, “Well, I’m going to keep teaching because I need to make money,” and I was exhausted going door to door during the winter.
Radu Lupu came back to my studio and said, “What would you like to work on?” I was thinking, “Well, I’m performing the Schubert “Moments Musicaux,” in a couple of months for my NYC debut at the 92nd Street Y, so I should play Schubert for him. This was perfect because Radu Lupu is a great Schubert pianist, and the Schubert was probably the weakest piece on my program.”
We spent six hours together- he played, I played. Just non-stop music! He made my little Steinway L sound like a huge piano. I can’t even tell you how it felt. He talked to me about how he sees Schubert and the piano, and each of the “Moments Musicaux,” except for No. 4. He said mine was better than his, and said, “Probably because it sounds like Bach. I’m not going to touch the No. 4,” and also the fast one, because he said that was fine. The one that I had the most trouble with was the first one. I always thought that was really hard.
The start of any work is always the hardest.
DWF: It’s deceptive. He showed me the way in. Afterwards, I said, “I’d like to take you out to eat but it’s three in the morning,” so I ordered from the coffee shop. He’s kosher, so he had lox without dairy. We started gossiping about every pianist. He loves Murray Perahia. He said Murray Perahia is a better pianist than he is.
Did you face hurdles making a career? I think we could write the handbook: How to Survive in Classical Music.
DWF: For me, it was about finding my true voice. I went back to Juilliard for my master’s degree and met a lot of great people and studied with Adele Marcus, but the truth is, the program really wasn’t for me. They loaned me a grand piano for my studio apartment for as long as I studied there, which really made my life much easier as far as practicing piano was concerned, but I don’t think the curriculum offered at that time was as rich as I was hoping it would be.
Let me add that Juilliard has changed course completely. For a doctorate students spend a year doing research, and they miss practicing.
DWF: It’s not that Juilliard wasn’t a great place, and I do think the people were wonderful. It just wasn’t what I needed at the time.
Who were you studying piano with at Princeton?
DWF: I studied with my teacher from the Pre-College, Leonard Eisner. Princeton generously paid for these piano lessons. I was awarded the honor of becoming a university scholar for four years. As a university scholar, I could basically create my own program.
I think it’s been a learning process, learning about myself. My biggest challenge was understanding that I have a thirst for being creative. I started being creative in my programming; I did a program of all nocturnes by all composers but Chopin. When I performed at the Flagler Museum, the great virtuoso Shura Cherkassky was there and he loved everything about the concert. He became another mentor, even in the short period of time that I knew him. Scheduling interesting and unique programming was my way of being creative.
When I had kids, things changed again. Previously when I gave concerts I traveled through Europe and China and South America. I love performing more than anything in the world, but I hated the traveling. I talked to Maestro Cherkassky about that – being a touring pianist and the loneliness of it all – and he agreed with me whole heartedly.
A lot of people love it. After concerts, the idea of going from airport to hotel to concert to hotel to airport, and then after the concerts the audiences were always wonderful, meeting them, hearing wonderful things, but I would leave feeling empty.
One of my best friends had a breakdown touring when she was young. She’s a star now. She turned the experience around herself.
DWF: It’s not easy when you’re young. Also, I wasn’t part of an orchestra or a chamber ensemble which is a different experience. Although I did study chamber music with Felix Galimir for two years at Juilliard, I was never really introduced to that world of being a chamber musician. And when I did, everything changed.
When I started performing with St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, traveling was great. And then when I performed with David Shifrin and Paul Neubauer, it was a different experience.
There was always a part of me that wanted to keep performing and be creative. When I had kids, I stopped traveling. That was my decision, but I was lucky enough to be able to perform with amazing musicians from St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, and many other extraordinary artists, performing at Caramoor and other wonderful venues close to home in the Tri-State region.
Then I met Carter Brey because our kids went to Trinity. We started playing benefit concerts together for Trinity. We played so well together. He understood my family obligations. We did concerts in this area, but if there was a need for me to travel, we would play during our spring breaks, and we’d take the families.
There was one year when the New York City Public Schools started making serious cutbacks in music. Cutting out music was unacceptable to me and I wanted to do something. My kids were lucky; they’re surrounded by music and art. I started writing short stories that went with famous pieces of classical music: “ The Swan,” “Flight of the Bumblebee,” “Clair de Lune.” The music was accessible and the narrations would help kids understand and process the music.
I sent a proposal about my stories to music cassette books to Starbucks Entertainment in 2010. The president of Starbucks Entertainment loved it and was going to present and publish my project. A year later, that department shut down. Then I started thinking about Barnes & Nobles. My husband, who is a mathematician and into technology, warned, “If you make a cassette book, you’re going to end up in the bottom of that bin that people just go through. But there is this new platform called an app..”
For two years, I studied. I worked and learned about apps. I created my first interactive animated classical music app, “The Swan”, followed by “The Flight of the Bumblebee”. My daughter created the animation. She’s a tremendous artist, and she was only in high school at that time. Several of my musician colleagues, including Carter Brey, recorded the music with me. Grammy award winner David Frost produced it. You don’t get a better team than that.
It’s interesting because I did the same thing, but ten years before you. I made CDs and worked with Julie Andrews and Sesame Street people.
DWF: The greatest part of all of this was I became a door-to-door salesman. I took the apps to as many inner-city and charter schools as I could, and I would give workshops. I did this all on my own dime. I didn’t know about grants.
Didn’t you have to get approval from the Board of Ed to get into schools?
DWF: I went through all the channels. It was the most rewarding experience of my life. The kids loved it. I thought my apps were from age two to seven. Well, third grade and fourth grade teachers used it to teach creative writing. They said “Create your own story with the music.” That’s when I realized I can use my musical education, my academic education, and my love for music and children and storytelling for other purposes.
Have you personally been touched by violence against Asians?
DWF: In March, in 2020, when all the stories about this deadly virus from Wuhan, China were spreading like wildfire here – right before sheltering in place started – I was verbally assaulted for being Asian. I was walking my dog, one p.m. in Central Park, not far from where I live, and from out of nowhere a huge man comes barreling towards me and starts screaming in my face every anti-Asian slur he could think of. Then he threatened me, “Go back to where you came from. Go back to China, or get what you deserve.”
How big was your dog?
DWF: My dog is little. The stranger was close to me, I thought he was going to push me or shove me or strike me, but luckily at that moment a bunch of people were nearby and he fled. I took my dog and ran home. I was traumatized. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before, and it was really eye-opening.
After that I didn’t leave my apartment for seven months, literally. My husband was wonderful. He got me mace and pepper spray. I said, “I don’t feel comfortable using that. I’m so small, I’d be overpowered.” He said, “Come out with me, and we’ll walk together.” And for whatever reason, I think if I were more rational at the time, less emotional, I would’ve done that, but I didn’t because, you know what, I started thinking that people would blame me for the coronavirus. Being an Asian person while reports of this deadly virus coming from China continued to spread, I didn’t want to be looked at as part of the problem. So I stayed home.
All my concerts were canceled. I started listening to music, and then throughout March and April what I heard on the news made me sick because the attacks against our AAPI community were rising like wildfire and people were being brutalized.
I felt like I needed to do something in my own small way, so that’s when I created Heritage & Harmony in collaboration with WQXR. Since my mini-series Her/Music; Her/Story had just been on the air in the fall of 2019, I had a very good working relationship with WQXR. I think that the more stories we share of our leading Asian American musicians, the more people will understand who we are, respect us, and not blame us, and understand that we’re not part of the problem.”
The people at WQXR gave me free rein. In a very short period of time, because they wanted it out by May of 2020, I put the show together. During this time, I started listening to a lot of music by Asian American composers, and I realized that there’s a whole world of music that people don’t listen to. I started learning about music by composers from other backgrounds, especially women composers such as Florence Price and Margaret Bonds. I started thinking about creating something, but I wasn’t sure where I was going. At that time, I just wanted to listen and learn as much as I could.
Then, my family got sick with COVID. My son got sick first, and my husband got sick second. My daughter was the only one who didn’t get sick. She was in Chicago and flew to New York to take care of us. I told her not to come because I didn’t want her to get sick, but she said, “I won’t come into the house. I’ll bring you food and take care of the dog,” and she saved our lives. My COVID case was the absolute worst out of all of us.
And I became more determined than ever to find a way to help. The rise in hate crimes in early 2021 was worse than before. I went into the recording studio, recorded Heritage & Harmony: Silver Linings with Indira Mahajan, an incredible soprano. Together we recorded gorgeous songs by Margaret Bonds and Florence Price. I also recorded a couple of solo piano pieces by Korean American composer Beata Moon, and by Chinary Ung, a Cambodian composer who was just inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
I released my pandemic album Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings in May of 2021 with all proceeds going to KACF, an organization that fights against racism. I just felt like I wanted to do something in my own small way. I truly believe that every little bit helps and that we are all in this together.
How has your perspective changed, now that your children are older and you have more time for your own work?
DWF: I think children always need their parents, but as they mature, they become more independent.
When I was younger I think my career was more tunnel vision. I have always loved performing. I think when you are growing up, there’s this menu that you’re given: if you’re talented you go to a conservatory, check: Win competitions, check: Give concerts, check. You learn etudes and a lot of standard repertoire required by those competitions and conservatories. Believe me, I was excited about doing all of that, but I realize now that I was always focusing on me.
Having kids, it takes the focus out of yourself. Teaching does that too. We both love teaching and I feel that teaching has helped me grow as a musician. Having kids is the same thing, because I’ve become much more aware of the world. Now that my kids are adults, I have the time to dig deep into my passions and beliefs.
When you’re younger, you lack the confidence to self-advocate. When I was younger, I would never have gone to WQXR and said, “Let’s do Heritage & Harmony.” Now I have the confidence and the experience to back it up.
What projects are occupying you these days, since we’re out of lockdown and we’re enjoying ourselves being out in the world again?
DWF: We’re out of lockdown, cautiously. I’ve been involved in a couple of recording projects. I just recently recorded seven pieces by composer Kim D. Sherman from her new solo piano album, Unfathomable Things. I recorded them on Richard Rodgers’ Steinway grand – he composed The Sound of Music on that piano! The engineer/producer was Adam Guettel, the Tony Award-winning composer who just happens to be Richard Rodgers’ grandson – working with him was incredible!
* These recordings are hot off the press and have not been released to the public. We are thrilled to be the first to hear these “Quiet Poems.”
I have another recording project in a few weeks. A solo piano album by Stephania de Kenessey called Microvids that she composed during COVID. It’s a nod to Bartok’s “Microkosmos.” I’m a proponent of new music. I believe that new music sometimes gets a bad rap, because a lot of audiences are fearful that they can’t understand it. What I love about these two albums is that they’re very accessible to audiences and performers of all ages.
I’ve created a new education program, in collaboration with the National Women’s History Museum, which will launch next spring, called Heritage & Harmony: Her Art, Her Choice. This is a role model program, where I have invited 10 or 12 extraordinary women artists from different disciplines and different ethnic backgrounds to share their stories, their stories of heritage, their stories of their challenges and their triumphs, so that our school-aged girls of color, who may not have been given the same opportunities that I had, can find their true voice.
I am almost 20 years older than you and lately feel less driven, but your dynamism is catching. As we are both pianists I’m going home to start practicing immediately!