Music has a way of providing common ground for people with even the most diverse backgrounds.
That ability to unify will be on full display with the featured performers during a free piano recital on Sunday, April 10, at First Congregational Church in Port Washington.
Heinzel Kunsmann has his roots in Ozaukee County. He grew up near the old Squires Country Club between Port Washington and Belgium and graduated from Ozaukee High School.
His wife, Kai-I Tien, is a native of Taiwan who met Kunsmann while they were graduate students at the University of Kansas studying piano performance with Richard Reber. Both completed doctorates at the school.
Prior to enrolling at Kansas, he earned a master’s degree in piano performance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“We met in the summer of 2002. I didn’t know anyone in Kansas at the time, and we started spending time together, going to baseball games or whatever,” Kunsmann said.
He said he always had an interest in Asian culture, which made Kai-I all the more intriguing.
That appreciation for other cultures can be traced to his youth.
“We spoke German at home when I was growing up, because my father is from Germany and he thought it was important to have an appreciation for where we came from,” Kunsmann said.
The couple eventually married and now live in Milwaukee with their three children, Leah, 7, Lilyan, 6, and Lucas, 3, who were born in Taiwan.
Kunsmann and Tien said they make an effort to see that the children know about the Taiwanese culture.
Before the children arrived on the scene, the couple moved to Taiwan where Kunsmann became proficient in Mandarin.
From 2006 to 2012, he served as a professor in the Department of Applied Foreign Language at Taiwan Shoufu University in Madou.
While living in Taiwan, Kunsmann maintained his piano skills by performing as a soloist at Tainan’s Cultural Institute and playing with a trio at Diwan University.
In 2012, the family moved back to the U.S., and Kunsmann taught Mandarin at the Ross School in East Hampton, N.Y.
Kunsmann said there seems to be a correlation between the ability to master a foreign tongue and music, although Tien said the scientific community is divided over whether those abilities are developed in the same part of the brain.
In addition to her doctorate, Tien has a master’s degree in music from Mannes College of Music in New York. She has held teaching positions as an assistant professor of piano in several universities and high schools in Taiwan City and is also a trained translator.
For Tien, music allows her to transcend the spoken word.
“When I am playing piano, I am able to express the emotions I am experiencing that I can’t always do with language,” she said.
“My favorite composers change from day to day, depending on my mood. I do love the Romantics … as well as Bach, Brahms and Rachmaninoff.”
Kunsmann said his musical tastes “fluctuate from time to time,” but he freely draws from a repertoire that covers classical composers, jazz and folk music.
Both said the ability to sit at a piano and play gives a depth to their lives that nothing else can fill.
“Music has always been an important part of my life. The piano gives me a lot of joy,” Tien said.
“Even when going through difficult times, it always kept me positive.”
That sense of joy often comes through when Tien plays during services at First Congregational Church.
She is also the collaborative pianist for the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, which Tien said has exposed her to quite a bit of vocal music and Broadway tunes.
Kunsmann said the greatest joy he gets from music comes from sharing it with young students at the Milwaukee Conservatory of Music and the Milwaukee High School of the Arts. He also teaches private piano lessons at Cedarburg High School.
“I enjoy spending time with kids, and any time I get to listen to musical performance it is like therapy to me,” Kunsmann said.
“I would probably have to say my favorite composers are the Three B’s — Bach, Brahms and Beethoven — but I have recently gotten back into jazz. It is a genre that is really strong in the Milwaukee area, with a number of clubs and even hotel lobbies exposing people to some excellent music.”
The couple’s musical abilities have taken them to performance venues in the U.S., Europe and Asia.
They said their program for Sunday’s free concert is still evolving, but will likely include solo and four-handed pieces.
Kunsmann is planning to play Bach’s “Two Part Inventions” and some Gershwin preludes. Tien is preparing selections by Debussy, Mendelssohn and Liszt.
“It is going to be a completely relaxed setting. It is not something you will have to get dressed up for,” Kunsmann said.
“Hopefully, we will expose people to some beautiful music they might not normally listen to and meet some new friends.”
The concert will be at 2 p.m. at the church, 131 N. Webster St., and is open to the public.
A Port concert will showcase the talents of Heinzel and Kai-I Tien, who were brought together from Asian and European cultures by the love of music