When Lancaster pianist Christopher Shih competed in the 2011 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, Thomas Yu was watching online from his home in Canada.
The two had met in 2007 at a festival showcasing award-winning amateur pianists. Shih won that prestigious competition in 2011.
“I remember, as soon as he won, the first thing he mentioned to me was, ‘You’re next,’ ” Yu says.
Shih was right. At the next installment of the Van Cliburn in 2016, Yu took home the grand honors.
On Sunday, the back-to-back Van Cliburn champions will perform a program of two piano works at The Ware Center. The program’s contents range from standards like Bach and Brahms to whimsical pieces like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which was popularized among younger audiences by the Disney movie “Fantasia.”
Proceeds from the performance will go to Music for Everyone.
Both Shih and Yu have careers in medicine in addition to their musical accomplishments. Shih works as a gastroenterologist at Regional GI in Lancaster. Yu is a periodontist.
“I remember hearing him play through the doors and wondering, who is this guy? He’s amazing,” Yu says. “I found out later he did the same thing for me when I was playing. As soon as the concert was over, we met each other. It was like an instant bond.”
The feeling is mutual.
“We got along really well, as if we were fraternity brothers or something and could basically talk about anything,” Shih says. “We just kind of hit it off.”
The pair collaborated for the first time in 2008 and have collaborated a handful of times since. When Yu won the Van Cliburn in 2016, he told Shih they needed to perform together again, this time as fellow gold medalists.
Shih and Yu will present the same program in Dallas a week after their Lancaster performance. Yu says one of the benefits of being an amateur pianist is the ability to be highly selective of performance opportunities. Sometimes he says yes to more than his schedule will allow, however. Balancing performances with his career and family is a never-ending puzzle.
“I think I find every time you go to a new stage of life, it’s a new set of challenges,” Yu says.
The latest challenge: working around his 8-month-old son’s schedule. Fatherhood creates yet another bond for him and Shih, though; Shih is the father of three girls.
“I’ll put him to the edge of the living room and practice as much as I can while watching him crawl his way over to the foot of the piano,” Yu says.
Shih also practices selectivity in scheduling performances. He exclusively performs chamber music and collaborative shows these days, both out of desire and necessity. After healing a torn ligament in his right hand, he began to experience issues in his left hand.
Shih has the same degenerative neurological condition that famed pianist Leon Fleisher lived with, focal dystonia. The condition causes fingers to curl up. His outlook is positive, though.
“I can still do endoscopy, which pays the bills … Second, I had already renounced solo virtuosic repertoire anyway,” Shih says. “So it’s not like I missed that in any way.”
Shih says he and Yu’s decision to keep music a serious hobby in their lives rather than a livelihood allows them to keep the focus where it belongs: on the music.
“Tom and I don’t take a penny in artistic fees,” Shih says. “We do it purely as a hobby and because we love doing it, and we do it as sort of a charitable contribution to the community.”
And no matter how busy their schedules get, Yu says he’ll continue to find a way to make music a part of the equation.
“I think you always find time to do the things that you love,” Yu says. “You’re never too busy to do that.”