The classical pianist says music gave her ‘clarity and hope’ after anti-Asian slurs

Michael Falco/Blackstar
Donna Weng Friedman ’80 was walking her dog through Manhattan’s Central Park in March 2020 when a man began yelling at her. “He screamed horribly hateful anti-Asian insults at me and blamed me for the coronavirus,” she recalls. “He told me to go back to China or get what you deserve.”

Weng Friedman was shaken, and she stopped leaving her apartment for several months. For comfort, the classical pianist turned to music. “Music is healing for me,” she says. “It gives me clarity and hope.” She was drawn to listening to compositions by Asian American, African American, and female composers. 

Earlier this year, she released Heritage and Harmony: Silver Liningsan album featuring Weng Friedman and soprano Indira Mahajan performing pieces by Margaret Bonds, Beata Moon, Florence B. Price, and Chinary Ung. The album, created to highlight composers who are underrepresented in classical music, raised funds for the Korean American Community Foundation, which fights against racism. “I want to introduce people to music that they have probably never heard before, but could easily fall in love with. As much as I love Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, there is a world of glorious music out there that deserves to be heard,” she says.

Donna Weng Friedman ’80
David Andrako

Music has been a central part of Weng Friedman’s life since she was 6, when her parents gave her a small upright piano, known as a spinet, to console her after her pet parakeet died. By 10 she was performing professionally, and during college she went on tour with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra as a solo classical pianist after winning its first young artist competition. 

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After Princeton, she wanted to try a more stable life and worked as an assistant agent in the International Creative Management’s rock ’n’ roll division. But she missed playing too much and soon returned to classical music. She has performed as a soloist with the Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Shanghai Symphony Orchestras, among others, and teaches piano as a faculty member at the Mannes School of Music.

At Princeton, she created the Donna Weng Friedman ’80 Master Class Series, which brings world-renowned musicians to campus to work with students. In 2018, she presented an event at the She Roars alumni conference titled “Her/Music, Her/Story,” to shine a light on the music and stories of overlooked women composers. She later co-hosted a miniseries of the same name on classical radio station WQXR to bring attention to female composers. While earning a master’s degree at the Juilliard School in the 1980s, Weng Friedman recalls, “not once was I taught any music by women composers.” 

She hopes her work offers opportunities for listeners to appreciate the music of underrepresented composers “whose careers were thwarted due to bias,” she says.

Next year, she will launch educational programs with the National Women’s History Museum designed primarily for school-age girls of color. The video series will share the work and life stories of leading female artists of color, including authors, musicians, fashion designers, and dancers. Students will contribute their own poems to be published online. 

“I believe that school-age girls of color should be given the opportunity to see themselves in the faces of extraordinary women,” Weng Friedman says, “so that they can know what is possible for them to achieve in their own lives.”

Watch Friedman play “Prelude,” by Beata Moon, one of the tracks on Heritage and Harmony: Silver Linings.