Pianist’s musical passion helped him triumph over near-fatal illness

Tue Sep 08, 2009 at 3:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Meng-Chieh Liu

The fall music season effectively gets underway next Sunday when the Chicago Chamber Musicians open their 23rd season with a program of Beethoven, Hindemith and Tchaikovsky at Pick-Staiger Hall in Evanston (repeated Monday at Gottlieb Hall downtown).

In addition to providing the usual adroitly balanced program, these opening concerts will also serve to spotlight the ensemble’s newest member, pianist Meng-Chieh Liu, who will perform in all three works.

The Taiwanese pianist has appeared as a guest artist with CCM previously, eliciting strong critical notices. Liu’s debut as an official Chicago Chamber Musicians member will be a baptism of fire, with Liu taking part in Beethoven’s Clarinet Trio, Hindemith’s Horn Sonata, and Tchaikovsky’s massive Piano Trio with its intensely demanding keyboard part.

“I was completely blown away by the guy,” said CCM violinist Joseph Genualdi of his first hearing of Liu. “His capacity is unbelievable.  He has so much music in his fingers.”

The ensemble’s founding violinist was struck by how a pianist with such a powerhouse technique could also prove such an extraordinarily nuanced chamber colleague. “The balance is always perfect and the flexibility is amazing,” Genualdi said. “He’s extremely sensitive to the flow and direction of the music. He’s a great artist and a true master of the piano.”

“I would describe his playing as very organic and poetic,” says CCM’s other violinist Jasmine Lin, a friend and fellow Curtis alumnus. “I think he’s very attuned to his colleagues and the spirit of the music. Yet he definitely has extremely strong convictions about the music but also great flexibility and compassion for his colleagues.”

That compassion comes out of Liu’s own life journey. Tackling the treacherous Tchaikovsky Trio would be a daunting task for the best-equipped pianists, but for Liu, who has overcome extraordinary odds in his personal life, it’s even more remarkable.

The pianist followed the path of many prodigiously gifted Asian music students, showing great promise as a child in his native Taipei, and coming to the U.S. to enter the storied Curtis Institute of Music at age 13.

The experience of arriving in a large American city like Philadelphia made a profound impact on the teen musician. “It was like a great adventure and something I never experienced before,” Liu recalls. “I adapted very quickly. I loved seeing different things and going to different concerts. At that time, you didn’t have a lot of international-level groups coming through Taiwan. It was a real eye-opener.”

Young Meng-Chieh flourished during his years at Curtis. Upon graduation at 21, he began to teach there while making a quick impact as a solo performer. A last-minute substitution for Andre Watts at the Academy of Music’s All-Star Series brought national recognition, a contract with Columbia Artists Management and a busy schedule of performance dates. The Taiwanese pianist seemed launched on a fast-track music career.

Yet, with the timing of Greek tragedy, just as Liu seemed on the verge of a breakout career in the fall of 1995, he became aware of a strange physical sensation. At first, it was a slight numbness in his fingers. Then it became stronger, affecting his arms.  “I started having symptoms of weakness but nobody could really pinpoint what it was—whether arthritis or something else.” He traveled around the country talking to various doctors and trying homeopathic remedies but nothing seemed to halt the mystery illness’s progression.

Within just two months it had advanced to the point that Liu could not lift his arms. In three months, he could no longer walk.

Liu entered the hospital where doctors were baffled by the mystery illness as his muscles became progressively weaker and his condition deteriorated. Two severe cardiac arrests exacerbated the nerve damage that in 1996 left Liu completely paralyzed for months. “I felt completely helpless,” he recalled. “No one could tell me what it was.”

His muscles atrophied, and his weight dropped to 90 lbs. “I was basically skin and bones. I had lesions all over my body from bacterial infections. It was pretty bad.” With doctors giving him little hope of survival, his parents flew in from Taiwan to take up a vigil at his bedside.

Ultimately, Liu’s illness was diagnosed as vasculitis—a rare disorder of the autoimmune system.  With little to lose, doctors prescribed a regimen of experimental chemotherapy and intense rehabilitation. “The thought was so strong and I was still so attracted to pursue a career in music and to really dedicate my life to the power of music.”

Slowly he began to gain weight and recover some strength. He underwent surgeries to repair the loss of tendons and the damage done to his skin and muscles, always motivated by the thought of somehow performing again.

He recovered sufficiently to return home while continuing an arduous rehabilitation. Curtis invited him to teach classes that didn’t involve playing and Liu gradually attempted to resume a normal life as much as possible.

While he regained his strength and mobility, the illness had dealt severe damage to his tendons and shortened his reach. Still, he was determined to find a way to resume his piano career. 

Liu began to relearn virtually all of his repertoire, spending long hours devising new fingerings and ways to navigate difficult passages. “I don’t have what I had before,” he said. “I can’t use the same fingerings. But I’m blessed with an analytical mind, so I can take a piece of music apart, find new fingerings and a way to perform. I worked hard to try to see if there was a way the music can work for me.”

Liu accepted an offer to play at a Curtis faculty concert, which was successful enough to encourage him to return to his solo career. With increasing performances and confidence, Liu began to rebuild his nascent interrupted career, his effort culminating in being awarded the  Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2002.  A documentary about his life was broadcast on Taiwanese television.

The direct cause of the vasculitis that almost killed him remains a mystery though Liu believes his workload, peripatetic traveling and career pressures contributed to it.  “I think stress had a lot to do with it,” he says. “Perhaps I was too ambitious at the time, trying to do too much.  Even today no one can really say what the cause was.”

Liu currently divides his time between Philadelphia, where he still teaches at Curtis, and Chicago, where—in addition to his CCM post—-he also teaches at the College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.

Liu’s repertoire covers a broad swathe. Brahms is a favorite along with other Romantic works like Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and the Ravel and Tchaikovsky trios, yet he also likes to explore Bartok, Ligeti and Messiaen—but not all contemporary music. “I’m not against Elliott Carter, but I prefer more tonal composers.”

At 38, Liu believes his near-death experience and difficult recovery has had the effect of making him a better person as well as a deeper, more probing musician. “The expression is different—maybe I became more mature about my life and my approach to music. I view music now as a tool to improve myself. It’s not just a mechanical thing.

“And I feel much closer to the music. I don’t know whether I bring greater meaning to it, but now it’s not something casual. It’s much more powerful. Now when I play, I’m thinking not only how it affects me but how it affects other people.”

Meng-Chieh Liu and the Chicago Chamber Musicians perform Beethoven’s Clarinet Trio, Hindemith’s Horn Sonata and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in Evanston and 7:30 p.m. Monday at Gottlieb Hall at the Merit School of Music in Chicago. www.chicagochambermusic.org; 312-225-2256.  

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3 Responses to “Pianist’s musical passion helped him triumph over near-fatal illness”

  1. Posted Sep 08, 2009 at 6:35 pm by Rebecca

    HI, I am writing to say that my daughter has vasculitis also, in her brain. She also was a dancer with alot of talent, who traveled and carried a heavy stress load.
    She is learning to play the piano to help her brain and to continue with what she loves. Music dance & art.
    Thanks for your story,
    you are an amazing inspiration,

  2. Posted Sep 09, 2009 at 6:32 pm by Lynn Corwin

    Liu: What a beautiful, hopeful story. I wish you continued good luck with your career. I have Churg Strauss Syndrome…an extremely rare form of vasculitis, and I am on potent medications to manage my disease. Did you ever find out what kind of vasculitis you had (there are about 15 different kinds)? Are you on any medications now or did the disease just vanish? It is my understanding that vasculitis is incurable. Just wondering.
    Best wishes,

  3. Posted Sep 09, 2009 at 6:46 pm by Kim

    My daughter was diagnosed with a nearly fatal attack of vasculitis in high school. Now, nearly five years later, she is in good health and will graduate with a violin performance degree from the Oberlin Conservatory in December. Like Mr. Liu, she uses music to express the wide range of emotions of both sickness and health! Thanks for sharing!

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