Valley musical prodigy to play Bankhead
By Lou Fancher
At the age of eight, Annie Wu learned to speak through a silver tube.
Having played the piano since she was 5, the Pleasanton native saw her older sister choose the cello and aimed for a wind instrument, the flute. The choice was fortunate for Bay Area audiences who have followed her meteoric rise as a soloist. Wu has performed with the San Francisco Symphony, Vienna International Orchestra, Diablo Valley Symphony, San Jose Chamber Orchestra and more. She has appeared as a member of Carnegie Hall's National Youth Orchestra in Washington, D.C., London, and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Winning First Prize in the National Flute Association's High School Soloist Competition in 2011, her YouTube beatbox video of Greg Pattillo's "The Three Beats," commissioned by the Competition, has accumulated more than 1.2 million views. Wu, 19, is a 2014 graduate of Foothill High School and is attending her first of a five-year dual-degree program at Harvard University and the New England Conservatory of Music.
Wu will join the Livermore Amador Symphony to perform François Devienne's Flute Concerto No. 7 on Saturday at Livermore's Bankhead Theater. The program will include Aaron Copland's "Our Town" and Sibelius Symphony No. 1 in E minor.
"I picked the flute quite randomly. It caught my eye," she says, recalling her inauspicious start.
Because there are no "child-sized" flutes as there are miniature violins, flute lessons typically begin when a child is 10 or older. Lung capacity and arm length are greater then, but Wu says she was fortunate to find a teacher who would take a younger-than-average student after hearing her blow on a flute. Eventually studying for five years with a second teacher, Isabelle Chapuis, Wu says she developed practice skills and style that will stay with her forever.
"I was in love with music but didn't have the tools and discipline for practicing," she remembers.
Thinking through each phrase clearly, refining her musical inclinations, Wu seeks an elegant, beautiful emphasis.
"Being avant-garde can be appealing for a while, but long, poised phrases last forever," she says.
Lara Webber, Livermore Amador Symphony's music director and conductor, says Wu's depth and maturity indicate a bright future.
"Her technical mastery of the instrument is exceptional, but what stands out is her interpretive expression," Webber says.
The Devienne flute concerto relies on commanding the full character of the composition's contrasting elements. From technical fireworks to lighter, almost flirtatious passages, Wu will aim for an effortlessness, improvisational impression.
"This piece makes me smile, especially certain quick changes in short phrases that are like a woman in a ball gown who's playful. I love to explore those," she says.
Although she gravitates to solo work and is acquiring performance presence and body language skills by watching her private teacher, Paula Robison ("She's a superstar," Wu says), Wu's studies include playing with an orchestra.
"It's really different," she says. "I have to adapt, be accurate, stay aware of the other musicians."
In a five-year span, she will graduate with a bachelor's degree (she's undeclared but says it will be in the humanities) and a master's in music. Managing her academic load while training for a professional music career is familiar but requires careful balance. Even so, she says high school felt like "busy work" and college classes offer greater scheduling flexibility and more relevance.
"The academic mindset is less creative," she says, "but art engages me. I can read literature for its explanation of human nature. (Playing the flute), I can connect to people in genuine, honest ways. It's important that schools carry that to students."
Webber agrees and says, "With the diminishment of music in public school curricula, we must step up to remind our community that music and the arts are what make us human and create our culture."
Livermore Amador Symphony President Denise Leddon says the reaction from students during symphony outreach visits Wu made to schools in Livermore and Pleasanton reignited her passion.
"Our symphony has a strong commitment to youth outreach. In many cases, it's a child's first live exposure to classical symphonic music. It's easy to capture their imagination and interest," Leddon says.
Wu, sounding rather like an awestruck child herself, says, "After I play the flute, it's such a natural feeling. I put my air into it and because there are no reeds, just my breath, it feels like my voice is out there in a beautiful and bright way."