While she is just 24 years old, pianist Wei Luo has already conquered concert stages around the world. After more than four years, she makes her long-planned return to partner with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra this weekend.
As part of the “Fierce Females” Masterworks concerts Saturday and Sunday, Luo will perform the only piece on the program not penned by a woman — the monstrously difficult Sergei Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2. The QCSO will precede this star turn with Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman” (1987), Louise Farrenc’s Symphony No. 3 in G minor (1847) and Florence Price’s excerpt from “The Mississippi River” (1934).
In a recent interview, Luo said she’s glad to be part of a female-dominated program.
“I just feel very honored to be a part of the program with those female composers. And when I see the fearless women composers, I am happy,” she said. “But actually for me, I’m not fearless as a person. Everyone has some fear, but in music I try to be fearless.
“That’s my goal but as an individual, I just don’t want to put too much burden on me to say, where I have to be fearless,” Luo said, noting she’s not sure her musical personality affects her day-to-day personality.
“That’s such a good question because it comes to the basics of how art and reality relate,” she said. “I think art is higher — it has more colors and power. For me, in art, I’m trying to do that where I’m heading to something higher than reality. For my show, actually the art is the real life.
“For the classical concerts, for the piano playing, that part for me — music is certainly higher and more intense than reality,” Luo said. “I am fearless in that category but as a young woman, as a person, I have sad moments or lazy moments…Being a pianist is a large part of who I am.”
A Chinese child prodigy
Born in Shenzhen, China, she showed great interest in music and began piano lessons at age five. Luo gave her debut recital in Hong Kong at age six.
As a child, Luo said, she was quiet. She learned to express herself behind the keyboard, where she would remain for hours, according to her bio.
Winner of numerous competitions in China, she also claimed first prize in the 11th Chopin International Competition for Young Pianists in Poland and the 2nd Rachmaninov International Piano Competition for Young Pianists in Frankfurt, both in 2010.
She made her orchestral debut at age 11 with the Shanghai Philharmonic where, along with artistic director Muhai Tang, they opened the 2011 season performing the Prokofiev Concerto No. 3 at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center.
Luo has performed solo recitals in major cities and music festivals, including Lucerne Switzerland, New York City (Mostly Mozart Festival and the NY International Keyboard Festival), San Francisco Herbst Theater, Napa Valley Music Festival, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and Gilmore Keyboard Festival.
In 2012, at age 13, Luo was accepted to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where she studied with Gary Graffman and Robert McDonald.
In 2019, Graffman, Luo’s trusted mentor since she arrived at Curtis, said: “She is not only a wonderful musical powerhouse but a brilliant thinker, who goes way beyond the score and brings her own ideas to everything she approaches.”
Of one performance, REVUE magazine wrote of Luo: “The young artist is carving out her own space among her Curtis predecessors with deep sonorities, fiery intensity and unfiltered rawness. Luo’s strong connection to the Russian compositions was plain throughout the concert.”
In fall 2018, she performed the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Quad City Symphony, and in recent years also played Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Kansas City Symphony and Michael Stern, and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto in G minor with the Denver Philharmonic.
In 2018, Luo received the Gilmore Young Artist Award and she is also a recipient of the “Salon de Virtuosi” Career Grant in New York. The Philadelphia Inquirer described her performance: “Equally intriguing were those odd moments when she took you so far inside the music that your ears left behind previous points of reference, partly because she immerses herself in the music with an intensity that borders on madness.”
In 2019, her self-titled debut album was released on Universal Music Group’s Decca Gold label. The album was featured by Gramophone Magazine as one of the year’s most exciting new releases.
The San Diego Union Tribune said: “This recording reveals a dazzling artist with an astonishing range of colors at her disposal, put to the service of a confident young soul whose musicality suggests the experience of someone two decades older.”
Career interrupted by COVID
Luo’s return to the QC (planned in 2021) was postponed by COVID. She just graduated from Curtis (also the alma mater of QCSO music director and conductor Mark Russell Smith) last May.
After COVID shutdowns, she came back to performing in China in late 2020, and in the U.S. just over a year ago.
“It’s hard because you know, for performers we plan and we practice and get ready, then you realize everything you have in mind has to be changed and you need to be ready for unexpected opportunities,” she said recently. “So it’s a different mindset.”
This past year, Luo gave a tour throughout China’s major cities and venues including Shanghai Concert Hall, Beijing National Center of Performing Art, Guangzhou Opera House, Harbin, Chongqing and Guiyang, among others. She also performed with leading orchestras including Shanghai Symphony Orchestra (Beethoven Concerto No. 4), Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra (Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2) and the National Center of Performing Arts Orchestra (Prokofiev Concerto No. 3).
Compared to her 2018 solo QCSO appearance, she said she invests more of her personality into playing.
“I have grown up and have more experience here and there with different cultures and different people from different countries,” Luo said. “I have been always putting so much energy and love and time into other people’s music. So what can I actually come up with, original from my own mind.”
“I’m not just playing or creating or capturing the soul of other composers’ minds, so I’ve been thinking a lot,” she said of her writing. “I write about who I am as a musician and as a person and then started to write poetry. Many of them originated from my experience with music, but also my feelings just as an individual or my experience along my travels, and my emotions.”
Inspired by Prokofiev
The QCSO concerts will be her debut of the Prokofiev 2nd, outside of Curtis, and it’s very different from the composer’s 3rd concerto, which Luo has played often.
“It’s a much bigger scale of personal emotions and it’s more intense and dramatic overall,” she said of the 2nd, noting it’s fiendishly hard to play. First written in 1912-13, the score was destroyed by fire and the composer reconstructed and rewrote it in 1923.
“It’s an emotional explosion of that composer,” the pianist said of Prokofiev. “That’s why he has so much craziness going on and it’s four movements. The third concerto is three movements, but this one has four movements.”
Luo called the third section a “really weird dance from all kinds of monsters,” and the last movement where the composer struggles through everything.
Tackling these challenging works is very painful and satisfying at the same time, Luo said. she’s especially drawn to Russian composers like Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff because of their strong emotions and spiritual energy.
She was inspired by the Prokofiev 2nd concerto to write a poem, “Spirit and Flesh,” which says in part:
I get lost on
the other shore of your sound waves
The colors of your harmonies
have given the rainbow
a reason to leave the sky
have been shattered into fragments
of an unreconciled corpse
in the residual ashes
Luo described this autobiographical poem as someone who goes through a dark period, and by being inspired by art, experiences a rebirth. Her poetry can influence her performing, she said.
“I have emotions that resonate with the composer’s emotions in music. So if that happens, I feel I have very strong connections and emotions,” Luo said. “Once that happens, I can feel like oh okay, he is using music to express that kind of energy and I feel that so maybe I can do something with my poetry to express what I see in the music, what I imagine from the music and then the poetry actually will come to me.”
This spring, she plans to will host an immersive art exhibit in midtown Manhattan featuring portraits and poetry she wrote about Prokofiev, and her playing some of her favorite composer on piano.
The QCSO concerts are 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 4 at Davenport’s Adler Theatre and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 5 at Rock Island’s Centennial Hall. Tickets are $18 to $65 for adults, and $10 to $33 for students, available by calling 563-322-7276 or visiting the orchestra website HERE.
For more information on the soloist, visit her website HERE.