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This Apple software engineer also engineers a special kind of music

19-year-old wins bronze medal in Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

19-year-old Daniel Hsu took home the bronze medal in 2017 for his piano recital performance.
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19-year-old Daniel Hsu took home the bronze medal in 2017 for his piano recital performance.

At 17, Silicon Valley-born Daniel Hsu contributed to the Workflow app, which won the 2015 Apple Design Award and got him and the other designers hired by the corporate giant.

At 19, Curtis Institute of Music student Daniel Hsu won the bronze medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, plus awards for chamber music and rendition of a new work.

At 21, both Daniel Hsus occupy the same body.

He rocks the keyboard at Apple as an employee whose musical absences, he says, have been gracefully tolerated. And he Rachs another keyboard on the performance circuit that brings him to town March 20 in the Charlotte Concerts season. He’s a last-minute replacement for “The Pink Panther in Concert,” after the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra canceled its tour.

You will indeed hear one of Rachmaninov’s Etudes Tableaux when he plays at Knight Theater. The program offers shorter works by Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky in the first half and Mussorgsky’s massive “Pictures at an Exhibition” in the second.

You might think he was trying to mix cerebral and emotional pieces to show multiple sides of his personality, but no: He just loves Russians.

“When I grew up (in Fremont, Cal.), my first piano teachers were Russian, and there’s a large amount of incredible Russian music,” Hsu said, struggling with a cold last week the day before a Hawaiian tour. “I love German music, but I’ve played a lot of Beethoven and Brahms, and I’m taking time out now for Russian romantics.

“Pianists can be very methodical about balancing a program or playing pieces that have certain relationships. I just start by asking, ‘Do I want to play this?’ “

Hsu bounces from solo recitals to chamber music to concertos with orchestras, including the N.C. Symphony last July. Each has its own reward: The first gives control over programming, the second provides the joy of collaboration, the third yields the pleasure of riding a wave of sound from a roomful of musicians behind him.

He’s been on this voyage of discovery since following two elder brothers into lessons as a 6-year-old. He still plays duo recitals with Andrew, who wrote the cadenzas for the Mozart concerto Hsu played at the Cliburn.

But when he went to Philadelphia to enter Curtis Institute at 10, little Daniel didn’t entirely know why he was there: He’d run around the school with a stick, pretending to be a ninja, and eagerly await the next superhero movie. (That’s still true. When asked in a radio interview if he had secret superpowers, Hsu said he’d conditioned himself to sleep any time he boards a plane.)

He was 15 or 16 when music bobbed to the top of his consciousness. “I was surrounded by incredible musicians, almost all of whom have careers in classical music today,” he says. “I spent a lot of time playing chamber music with them, and these other hobbies or interests didn’t quite (matter as much). At the end of the day, I would always return to the piano.”

One interest still competed for Hsu’s attention. He began to work with friends from Silicon Valley and Philadelphia on an app designed to automate repetitive steps users constantly perform on digital devices.

They all work at Apple now, he says, where Workflow morphed into Shortcuts. (Learn about it at apple.com/siri). Though Hsu doesn’t live in California, “I work out of whatever hotel room I’m in and contribute whatever I can whenever I can. It’s inspiring to work on something completely outside of music, and my co-workers and bosses are supportive of my musical career.”

Math and music have long been thought of as complementary, especially in rigorously structured music such as Bach’s. Hsu sees a similar link between music and engineering.

“The work ethic translates from one to the other, putting in hours on the details. Both involve analysis and problem solving. The stereotype for an engineer is a person sitting at a computer, typing all day, but that’s not true. (Engineering) requires you to analyze structures and designs, and you do that in music. The goal in both is to communicate better.”

Corporations embrace young engineers, but the music world doesn’t always do that. Hsu says “I’ve been told, ‘You’re young; you don’t get this piece of music yet.’ But even if you work on one Beethoven sonata for your entire life, you’re never going to give the perfect performance.

“Because you’re young, that doesn’t mean your perspective has no value. What’s right for you in that moment is right at the time, and it won’t be right later. I hear recordings I made five years ago and am appalled: ‘How could I have played that way? It’s a piece of trash!’ Five years from now, I’ll listen to recordings I’m making today and be appalled again. To me, that’s the fun of the process. Music has no end point.”

Daniel Hsu

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. March 20.

WHERE: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

TICKETS: $45-$65.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or charlotteconcerts.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.