Thursday, February 22, 2024

How pianist I-Lin Tsai is joining forces with Julian Toha to share Asian Pop culture in Classical Piano Concerts

Growing up in Tainan Taiwan, classical music was always something I-Lin Tsai was immersed in. Both her and her brother went to the top music performance in their area. Between that program and home they would dedicate hours and hours every day to cultivate their talent. But alongside that deep passion for classical music, I-Lin developed her love for pop music. Specifically, her favorite artist – JJ Lin was a heavy influence on her commitment to music performance. 

Where Asian pop music differs from American pop music is in its melodic patterns, instrumentation and language. Where Asian pop music aligns with all other pop music is in its harmonic structure, song form and song topics (love, social settings, etc). “Shifting this music to the piano and more specifically – classical music – produces an interesting effect rich harmonies, expressive melodies and interlocking rhythmic patterns.”  These are the reasons that I-Lin Tsai states for why she’s bringing Asian pop music to the classical music scene. “It just makes sense to blend this music with greats like Debussy who were so passionate about harmony”. The result is a unique concert program that I-Lin Tsai was able to take on her 2022 West Coast Concert tour.

“This is a new type of pianist that we haven’t seen so often in the classical music world”, said Ingrid Friedman the event planner at another post concert interview she did on tour at the Berkeley Piano Club. She went on to further highlight that, “She’s bringing the technical depth of a trained classical pianist to the catchy melodies and hypnotic harmonies of pop music.” And this is exactly what classical music audiences are looking for – a renaissance. It’s clearly working for I-Lin Tsai because she’s grown in her performances this year for the short time she’s put in since completing her Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Pennsylvania State University in 2021. 

The tour also featured Pianist Julian Toha who formerly toured as a soloist between 2009 and 2014. The two of them share two pieces on the concert program. The Suite for Piano Duet on Themes by JJ Lin and an arrangement of Rachmaninov’s famous song Vocalize (also for piano duet). 

You can watch the two of them performing the Suite for Piano Duet on Themes by JJ Lin  here: Youtube.

Although I-Lin is the first to do something like this in the classical music scene for Asian pop music, she’s not the first to do something like this overall. Other notable concert artists who are doing or have done this type of theme-based music date back to Bach himself who used to borrow themes from popular music. This continued throughout the classical period with composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with his Twinkle Twinkle Little Star Variations that he composed from a famous french folk song. Franz Liszt would do this during his concert touring years with everything from famous opera tunes to popular music motifs. In contemporary music, Pianist Christopher O’Riley is famous for his piano arrangement work in bringing Radiohead to the classical music scene. This tradition of these great artists re-engineering pop music into classical forms is now being carried forward by I-Lin Tsai and her work on themes by JJ Lin in her latest tour.

For more information on I-Lin Tsai and her tour dates, videos or to hear her on Apple Music and Spotify, visit her website at 

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