As a cofounder of String Theory, a YouTube star, and a Davidson Fellowship recipient, Nathan Chan, CC-Juilliard '15, has a lot of reasons to wear his ever-present smile. Now he can add winning the Juilliard Cello Competition to his résumé. The Bay Area native beat out full-time Juilliard undergraduate and graduate students with his performance of Richard Strauss' "Don Quixote," which he'll get to perform in Alice Tully Hall next month.
The competition occurs at Juilliard each year for every instrument, with the competition piece announced the prior summer. Chan, who spends part of his time studying economics at Columbia and part of his time taking cello lessons under Richard Aaron at Juilliard, was excited to see that this year's piece tied in to his Core studies.
"I think having read the book was one of the most enlightening things, because I knew that the book is quite silly and dramatic, and I tried to bring that knowledge into my playing," Chan said. "Whenever you're soloing or performing, you're always trying to convey a story, and knowing the story for 'Don Quixote' helped me a lot in preparing."
The piece, written for orchestra with a cello solo, stars the cello as the character of Don Quixote and the principal viola as his sidekick Sancho Panza, with the two instruments engaging in a dialogue with one another throughout the piece. "Don Quixote" is one of Strauss' famous tone poems—musical compositions that draw from literature as inspiration.
"I think my favorite part of the piece is the theatricality of it all," Chan said. "Each variation of the piece is very extreme in emotion. I'm crying or I'm yelling or I'm riding my horse. Bringing a lot of different emotions to the piece makes it not only exciting, but also worth it."
After listening to the piece and practicing extensively, Chan can look back on reading the text with a more critical perspective.
"I think now, if I read the book again, I would definitely think about the moments differently since the composer has made me internalize each moment and associate it with a certain melody," Chan said.
Chan's prize for winning the competition is the opportunity to perform the piece with the Juilliard Orchestra next month under the direction of Detroit Symphony Orchestra conductor and Juilliard alumnus Leonard Slatkin. Rehearsals begin next week, and Chan will have two weeks to perfect the piece before he takes the stage.
"I'm nervous, but I think it will be really fun because the piece itself is so imaginative and creative," Chan said.
As a member of the Columbia-Juilliard exchange, Chan is also excited about the opportunity the performance offers him to participate in Juilliard life.
"Since I spend my first few years only taking lessons there, it's cool to have more Juilliard experiences, and the opportunity to participate in something big there is quite exciting."
Chan's performance with the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra will take place on May 4 at 8 p.m. in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center. Admission is free.
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