Key to success
Heldi Tsai has Baroque sympathies
Heidi Tsai is not a run-of-the-mill Barcelona resident of Chinese origin. But then, she isn’t run-of-the mill at all. At age 36, she speaks four languages, is a citizen of three countries and is the founder and artistic director of the Barcelona Baroque Ensemble. She also has a grand piano, two harpsichords, and is looking to buy a pianoforte.
Born in Taiwan, of Chinese ancestry (her grandparents fled China), at age 12 she emigrated to the US and later became an American citizen. In November 2006, she added Spanish to her citizenship, having settled in Barcelona four years ago with her Catalan husband, Nabi Cabestany, thereby giving her three nationalities. Cabestany is a cellist with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and also plays regularily with Heidi in the Barcelona Baroque Ensemble.
Heidi’s linguistic capabilities reflect her heritage and citizenship: Mandarin, English, Spanish and Catalan, but her primary language is music. For her, having an ensemble is important, because it provides a team of musicians to play with who know how to communicate with her. “That’s necessary when you’re playing Baroque music, especially Bach,” she explained. “If there’s a problem with the playing you cannot tell a harpsichordist to do the same things as you would tell a pianist. It’s very like jazz—all Baroque pieces have a basso continuo, a bass-line, that you must improvise on with the right hand using the numbers you see on the score.”
As well as playing, Heidi teaches at the Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya. Passionate about both her instrument and Baroque music, Heidi took up harpsichord at age 22, after 16 years of piano. When speaking about her obscure instrument (harpsichordists are not generally given full-time jobs with orchestras) she became animated, her hands fluttered and her voice grew excited. “I fell in love with the sound of the harpsichord and the idea behind historical performances: playing the music as it is imagined to have been played in its own time and on its own instruments.”
Bach is the best-known composer of harpsichord music. “I was in love with Bach and am still in love with Bach and would only play Bach if I could,” said Tsai. “I think he did everything musically and cerebrally. You don’t need to make up your version of Bach, its just Bach.”
Still, there are others, like Mozart, to consider, and that is why she’s shopping around for a pianoforte. As Bach composed largely for the harpsichord, Mozart composed for the pianoforte. “I’m hungry for Mozart these days.”
The European Baroque music scene is currently experiencing a renaissance that started in Holland in the Seventies. Between Europe and the States, Heidi plays 25 to 30 concerts a year as an invited guest with symphonies, as well as with her ensemble. The ensemble pushes her to learn how to do everything, she said. As the producer—and artist—she not only plays the concerts, but also chooses the repertoire and concert halls, oversees the publicity and programme notes, and chooses the musicians. Her core group includes musicians from France, Sweden, Catalunya and an American currently residing in Holland.
For all her accomplishments, she still gets stereotyped in the streets of Barcelona. “I play a concert and get a standing ovation then get in the metro and some guy makes rude noises and calls me a ‘Chinita’, a small Chinese person,” she said, with exasperation.
Heidi said she loves Barcelona, but interprets these kind of frequent remarks as racist, and thinks the Barcelona’s population could use some consciousness-raising. “Even the Spanish musicians and conductors who I don’t work with automatically assume I am Japanese. All the Asian students at the conservatory are Japanese, and the assumption is that if you are Asian and play music and dress nicely you are Japanese, because Chinese people work in restaurants.”