5 Questions to Donna Weng Friedman (pianist)

Award-winning pianist and music producer Donna Weng Friedman enjoys a varied career as a soloist, chamber musician, teacher, curator, and app developer. In collaboration with WQXR in May 2020, Weng Friedman created and produced Heritage and Harmony, a virtual concert video series in celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month. Now, she is releasing Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings, an EP that intends to respond to the wave of violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) individuals and promote understanding and tolerance among people of all backgrounds. It features Weng Friedman and soprano Indira Mahajan performing music by composers Margaret Bonds, Beata Moon, Florence Price, and Chinary Ung.

One of the things that struck me about Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings is your synthesis of the personal and the political. The work is born out of personal trauma—it features pieces that provided you catharsis in that trauma’s aftermath while still connecting to the broader violence currently being experienced on the wider AAPI community. Have the experiences of this last year and the development of this project changed the way you conceive of your identity, either personally or professionally?

Without a doubt, the experiences of the past year helped me gain greater insight and appreciation for my Asian heritage. Ironically, the racist incident last March sparked a personal journey of finding my true voice as an Asian American, and in doing so, my feeling of connection to the AAPI community was strengthened. Up until the pandemic year, I’ve led a smooth sailing life, never having felt discriminated against before. The verbal assault I encountered last spring shook me up, but it was nothing compared to the thousands of horrific hate crimes committed against members of our AAPI community that we read about all too frequently. Unfortunately, anti-Asian bigotry is not new to this country, but I do believe things are beginning to change–there is much more awareness and movement today, thanks to our vocal younger AAPI generation and social media.

Looking back on my young adult years while I was pursuing a career in music, I realize that I was on a self-seeking path, one where my passion for classical music was all-consuming. Today, while that same passion remains strong and true, I believe that it can serve a better purpose–one that can promote understanding and tolerance and help bring people together through the unifying power of music.

Indira Mahajan--Photo by Steve J. Sherman

Indira Mahajan–Photo by Steve J. Sherman

I want to ask you about art’s ability to make a difference. It moves me when I think about how you transformed hate into something generative and beautiful. But at the same time, the violence unleashed on the AAPI community is overwhelming to me. You believe art can effectuate change (or you wouldn’t have made the album), but have you ever doubted the album’s ability to help combat social evils like racial hatred?

I believe with my whole heart that art, beauty, and positivity can effectuate change. There is scientific evidence that shows that people can rewire their brains to think positively, a much-preferred outlook to the continued looping of negativity that can lead to a tailspin of ugliness and hate. I believe that much of the horrendous racist behaviors attributed to the pandemic stem from ignorance and fear of the unknown, fueled by a single story about the cruel and deadly virus originating from China.

To that end, I am convinced that sharing our stories of heritage and educating those who do not know who we really are is of vital importance. I have never claimed that an album of beautiful music in and of itself could actually help combat racial discrimination, but I have learned that working together with like-minded people can effect change, which is why I chose to donate all proceeds of Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings to the Korean American Community Foundation (KACF).  KACF is an organization that supports our AAPI community through philanthropy and education, while being committed to fighting against racism at all levels. I believe that together, with the help of our readers and listeners, we will make a difference.

Beata Moon--Photo by Douglas Gorenstein

Beata Moon–Photo by Douglas Gorenstein

I noticed that the tracks on this album differ slightly from the virtual concert/video series you performed in and curated for WQXR last May. How did your curatorial intentions change from the video series to the forthcoming album?

The two Heritage and Harmony projects were both created in response to the wave of violence against our AAPI community.  Other than that, they are quite different in nature. It is true that I perform Space Between the Fish and the Moon by Cambodian American composer Chinary Ung on the two H&H programs–it is the only piece that is featured on both the album and the video series. I discovered Space Between the Fish and the Moon by chance when I was feeling most vulnerable, so it holds a special place in my heart while marking the beginning of my journey of self-reflection. What is interesting to me is how my performance of that piece evolved, from the jazzier quality expressed in the video series, which I recorded in late April 2020, to a more spiritual, mystical version on the album, which was recorded in late November of that year. To me, the different interpretations represent my journey during those eight months connecting with my Asian American roots.

The two Heritage and Harmony programs have very different origins. I created the WQXR video series to spotlight leading classical musicians of Asian descent by giving them a platform to share their music and their stories. With Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings, it was the music that came first. Truthfully, I didn’t plan on making an album–it all just came about rather organically. I spent a lot of my sheltering-at-home time listening to music by underrepresented composers, and the four pieces that became the album spoke to me in a way that words cannot describe. Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings began with the music, which guided me on my path towards healing and self-discovery. The extraordinary AAPI artists who shared their music and stories with me so generously on both programs are the ties that bind, and collaborating with them during the pandemic was a silver lining that I will always treasure.

Chinary Ung--Photo by Kenneth Kwan

Chinary Ung–Photo by Kenneth Kwan

One of the significant challenges of this past year has been how social distancing has prevented ensembles from performing. Are there any plans on performing this album or video series live? (Admittedly, I want to hear cellist Soo Bae’s arrangement of Arirang in person, which surprisingly brought me to tears.)

There is nothing I would like more than to have my Heritage and Harmony projects performed live, either separately or together as one. I have no concrete plans at the moment, as NYC is still in wait-and see mode, but this is something I think about all the time and am committed to making happen at some point in the not-too-distant future. I would certainly welcome any suggestions and ideas about viable venues, in or outside of NYC. And for the record, I also teared up while watching and listening to Soo Bae’s video. Thank you so much for sharing that with me–I will definitely let her know : )

Finally, what does allyship look like to you in the wake of these experiences?

The sad truth is that racism against Asian Americans has been ongoing since the 19th century. As we continue to learn, history will keep repeating itself if some necessary changes are not made. What gives me hope today is that more Asian Americans are speaking out and standing up for our community. This, to me, is a crucial step forward towards the healing of our AAPI community, because only when our voices are heard and acknowledged can we expect others to stand with us against racial bias. My hope is that we will all lift each other up, work side by side to rebuild a kinder more respectful world, and ultimately live together in Heritage and Harmony.


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