Ricker Choi on performing Liszt’s Totentanz with Sneak Peek Orchestra

Ricker Choir performing at the Berlin International Amateur Piano Competition in the 2,500 seat Berlin Philharmonie

In preparation for Sneak Peak’s upcoming concert, I’ve been lucky to share a few words with talented pianist Ricker Choi who will be playing Liszt’s Totentanz, The Dance of Death.

Ricker began playing piano at the age of 13 and has studied with long-time teacher Boris Zarankin as well as taken master classes with other celebrated pianists. He has played all over the world including award-winning performances in amateur competitions in Boston, Massachusetts and Berlin, Germany. He even organizes and performs in concerts for charity as part of the Music Heals initiative.

But Ricker, who also holds an MBA from York University, wasn’t always playing to his heart’s content. In 1993 he took a 12-year break from performing music in order to focus on a business career. The dry world of business studies, however, couldn’t entirely keep him from his love of the arts and he spent whatever leisure time he had immersed in books. His prolific reading included theoretical writings on the piano as well as a myriad of literature. Ricker believes that his creative exploration along with careful study of theory has allowed him to better understand the composers and has infused his playing with richer personality.

Totentanz is an interesting piece for Ricker on both emotional and technical levels. The spooky melody evokes images of the macabre straight from its opening chords which he says bring to mind an image of the Grim Reaper and his mighty axe. Meanwhile, the score features an array of contrasting variations derived from this melody. Each repetition of the theme demands a different approach, and it is up to the performer to structure these variations in a manner that is both cohesive and unpredictable. For Ricker, the latter is the fun part of playing, as the score allows him enough freedom to put a larger part of himself into his performance.

This freedom however exacerbates some challenges in performing alongside an orchestra. Among the most difficult is timing. Pauses are tricky because both the conductor and Ricker have their own sense of exactly how long each should be held. The only way to match is to practice, practice, and practice some more. Rehearsals are integral to the group. During these Ricker has learned to adjust his style of playing in order to match the orchestra. In Totentanz, he has to strike a balance between expressing his emotions in playing and holding back enough to work with the group. This magic combination is the key to creating a monumental performance.

And the Liszt piece demands no less than monumental. When asked about his overall impression of Totentanz, Ricker replied that it is a glorification of death, an ode to the end of the world. For an introspective and soft-spoken performer like himself, it is a joy to have a venue to express his more extroverted side.

Come out to see Ricker Choi perform with Sneak Peek Orchestra in Isle of the Dead on October 26, 2012, 7:30pm at St. Gabriel’s Passionist Church (TTC Bessarian Station). Lots of spooky music is on the program and also lots of parking space. $20 adult and $10 student.