Rapa Nui belongs to Chile the way Hawaii belongs to the United States. Since European explorers first set foot there on Easter Day 299 years ago, the lonely speck of rock—“Easter Island”—has haunted the world’s dreams as the realm of the moai, guardian spirits in stone, monumentally arrayed along the shore, their backs to the Pacific.
Growing up in their shadow, a nine-year-old named Mahani Teave fell under the spell of an object scarcely less numinous: Rapa Nui’s very first piano, a humble upright. The visitor from abroad who had shipped it over had scarcely moved in when little Mahani appeared at her door, not to be turned away. Thus her studies began. Who could have guessed that in time this child of the island—born to an American mother and a local father—would emerge as an international concert pianist? Lang Lang, her rock-star colleague from the backwater of Shenyang, likes to quote a Chinese proverb to the effect that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
In the end, every career is a moonshot. It wasn’t long before Teave’s mother whisked her to Valdivia, in southern Chile, for more professional instruction. In her late teens, Teave began graduate work at the Cleveland Institute of Music, followed six years later by three years at the no less prestigious Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler, in Berlin. Still in her 20s, Teave had begun to make her mark in selective competitions and on the concert circuit. Yet Rapa Nui was calling her back. “There was this umbilical cord connecting me to the island,” Teave recalls. “‘Honey,’ it was saying, ‘you’ve had all these opportunities. There are lots of other children back home waiting to have them, too. Only you can do this.’”
Directed by John Forsen with narration by Audra McDonald, the new documentary Song of Rapa Nui fills in colorful details of Teave’s formative years. In addition, it chronicles the construction of her school—a facility of airy Mediterranean grace built from six years’ worth of flat tires, tin cans, and empty bottles set into the walls like chunks of stained glass. Of course, it took a village. In addition to Teave, the NGO Toki Rapa Nui’s Web site lists eight co-founders, among them a construction engineer, an obstetrician, a lawyer, and an architect, all of whom also sing, write songs, or dance. The curriculum includes individual lessons in piano, violin, and cello, as well as classes in music appreciation and traditional arts. There’s even a farm modeling sustainability and food sovereignty, critical values for an island too long dependent on air shipments of all essentials—and critical likewise for Spaceship Earth.
Teave’s burgeoning responsibilities have not eclipsed her love for the piano or performance. In other news, the pianist has just released her first CD, a recital ranging from Baroque selections of Bach and Handel to the virtuoso fare of Chopin, Liszt, and Scriabin. It closes with an island song, first chanted in the traditional manner, then elaborated on the keyboard.
On Zoom, Teave reflected on her personal history, her musical passions, and the challenges for her island and her school.
Matthew Gurewitsch: You can remember when there wasn’t a single piano on Rapa Nui. And you can remember when there was just one. How many are there today?
Mahani Teave: At the school we have nine pianos and five electric keyboards. And there are others in private homes.
M.G.: Who tunes them?
M.T.: Before the pandemic, we would fly technicians in from Santiago, five hours away. That’s not possible now. But one of the teachers has learned how and is doing well. She has a great ear.
M.G.: How hard is the island climate on a piano?
M.T.: Not as bad as I expected. Our school is away from the ocean, so that helps. To help with the humidity, we put little cups in the instruments and fill them with salt.
M.G.: Once that first piano showed up on Rapa Nui, your life changed fast, didn’t it?
M.T.: Yes. I had my first lesson in April 1992. That Christmas, my mother flew me to Valdivia, in southern Chile, so I could study more seriously.
M.G.: By this time, you were already playing Mozart’s Sonata No. 16 in C major and Beethoven’s Für Elise.
M.T.: My teacher on Rapa Nui, Erica Putney, was really a violinist, not a pianist. She hadn’t come to Rapa Nui to teach, and she didn’t have lesson books. So she just started me out with the easiest pieces she had.
M.G.: People always say that you can’t go home again. Yet after nearly 20 years on three different continents, you resettled in Rapa Nui. What’s the longest you had been away?
M.T.: No matter where you start from, it’s a very long trip. I think the longest I was ever away was five years.
“There was this umbilical cord connecting me to the island.”
M.G.: I wonder if you’re one of the musicians who figured out that some of the more brutal realities of the industry just were not for them. The competition culture, for instance. What was that like for you?
M.T.: There are some very positive aspects to competitions. They force you to push yourself to your limits and even further. They can open many doors. But I could never make peace with the idea that people are always comparing us. When I got first place, I felt sad for the other players. And when I didn’t get first place, I would wonder why. What was missing? As an artist, you have to have something to say—and also to communicate humility. It’s not about us being rock stars.
M.G.: How about touring?
M.T.: When you go from the airport to the hotel to the concert hall and back to the airport, it’s very intense. It’s wonderful to play at beautiful concert halls, with their magnificent instruments and amazing acoustics—but also to take the music to more unconventional places. I’ve played in Antarctica. I’ve done outreach concerts, playing Bach in a favela for people who never saw a piano before, and they’ve listened with the greatest respect and concentration. I’ve performed in prisons. You meet incredible people. If you don’t get to see the sights, you might have a late dinner at a restaurant that specializes in wonderful cuisine you’ve never had before. I appreciated those things. But always, the great reward is the music—music so sublime that it lifts your spirits beyond the difficulties.
M.G.: And yet, you walked away just as all the training was really beginning to pay off.
M.T.: It wasn’t so much that I walked away. It was more of a segue. As the school grew, the work became more time-consuming, especially the fundraising and the administrative things, which are not my favorite part, but there’s no one else to do it. And then I got married and had my daughter. So, I can’t be touring all the time, no. But that’s not to say I can never travel.
As an artist, you have to have something to say—and also to communicate humility. It’s not about us being rock stars.
M.G.: From Song of Rapa Nui, it’s clear that Sergei Babayan has been a huge inspiration. You went to Cleveland for a masterclass with him and stayed for six years. Apart from him and Fabio Bidini, your professor in Berlin, do you have other artistic heroes and role models?
M.T.: Absolutely! Starting with Martha Argerich, a phenomenal musician! I got to hear her in Berlin with the cellist Mischa Maisky. But my greatest inspiration comes from the older artists: Josef Hofmann, Ignaz Friedman, Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels… And it’s not just pianists. Today, on my half-hour radio show, I played David Oistrakh in movements from the Brahms and Tchaikovsky violin concertos. I squeeze in as much music as I can so people get to know classical music and to like it. Another hero of mine is Jascha Heifetz. What he does with his violin in the second movement of the Korngold concerto—I cannot believe such beauty. Among living artists I’m absolutely blown away by the countertenor Philippe Jaroussky. It would be a dream to do with the piano what he does with his voice.
M.G.: I think about you and I think about Lang Lang, two kids from the ends of the earth who dreamed of making a life as pianists. You’ve both made the dream come true, and you’re both dedicated to giving back, he with his foundation, you with your school.
M.T.: The choices we make, the roads we take, are unique to each person. I think we all want our world to be a better place, but sometimes we don’t know how to make that happen. Lang Lang has so many doors open and can do incredible projects because he has those horizons. I was well known in Chile, and that opened many doors, so I could help others. But regardless of where we are in our life—fame-wise, money-wise, age-wise—it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be famous to do something, you have to want to do something. You can change a person’s life by a gesture.
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii