Meet Kristian Chong

Kristian Chong is one of the finest Australian pianists of his generation.  Tony Recsei, Sydney Mozart Society Vice-President spoke with Kristian recently about his career, the music and people who inspire him, and the sonatas he will perform with violin virtuoso Sophie Rowell at our concert on 28 August 2015.


Kristian Chong 

                                                                                                                                           photo: John Tsiavis

SMS When did you know that music and the piano would be your career? Who were your mentors and teachers?

KC My realisation that the piano would be my career path occurred quite late compared to most, in my early twenties. I was studying for a double degree in Law and Commerce, and had finished it when I decided to go back to my musical studies. I was never particularly enthusiastic in my early music studies, especially in my teenage years as it often led to missing out on activities with my peers, and I never really was passionate about it, only when suited me. Luckily I had some incredible influences, with Beryl Kimber on the violin, and Noreen Stokes on piano, both at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide who were patient and dedicated. I started to listen to classical music towards the end of my teenage years, and played a little, and was immediately intrigued for the first time.

The pivotal moment came when I decided to enter a small competition, playing Prokofiev’s third piano concerto with my teacher in my final year of law school. I was rehearsing in Elder Hall at the Elder Conservatorium, and was so engrossed with the music that I did not notice twenty students enter, sit and listen. They broke into spontaneous sustained applause when I played the last chord, and this feeling of euphoria combined with love of the music overcame me. It was at this moment that that I knew a musical path of some form was to be involved.

From there I did some study with an excellent German pianist in Adelaide, Stefan Ammer at the beginning of my music undergraduate degree, but at the time felt I needed a more challenging environment. I hence found Stephen McIntyre at the Melbourne Conservatorium, and followed this with further study at the Royal Academy of Music in London with Piers Lane and the then head of keyboard Christopher Elton. Piers, Christopher and Stephen were instrumental in my emerging professional musical life, with all providing not only a teacher - student relationship but a mentor role as well. This is something that does not always eventuate between students and teachers!

SMS  That sounds a most challenging and interesting progression.  How did your piano career then evolve?

KC I have been extraordinarily lucky and had some great opportunities to perform over the years, so I guess it has just gradually built up over time. I won a couple of major competitions early in my studies, and started to receive professional engagements, both in recitals and concertos, and over time it has just built up with regularity and reliability. I know that chamber music has played a great part of this, and I think being a capable chamber player has very much helped my career with exposure and experience in all sorts of ways. After my studies, I have been lucky enough to have a steady stream of work in concerto, chamber and solo playing, but one cannot rest on one’s laurels and must treat every concert with the same care and detail as every other performance! I’ve been also very fortunate with teachers such as Piers Lane and Stephen McIntyre, who have helped with various opportunities along the way.

SMS  What have been the highlights of your performing career?

KC I don’t really see performances in terms of highlights, and one normally remembers performing in certain locations or high profile events, but in my case the recitals I remember come from the most engaging and satisfactory performances. In the chamber realm, playing with the girls (with Sophie Rowell) from the old Australian String Quartet was always fun, and working with players such as cellist Li-Wei Qin and violinist Natsuko Yoshimoto in piano trios is always a highlight. Performances of Britten Concerto with the Adelaide Symphony were certainly memorable, as was playing in iconic locations such as the Sydney Opera House and in the Forbidden City in Beijing. I will often remember fondly a performance but quickly forget about it as the next challenge approaches.

To be honest, my best performance ever (and certainly a personal highlight) was playing the Liszt B minor Sonata in Dukes Hall, at the Royal Academy of Music the day before my final recital. It was to no one, and it was probably the best piano playing I have ever delivered by a long way!

SMS  There are many extraordinary people in the world of music. Can you tell us about some of your more memorable encounters?

KC  I’ve met some great people in the music world, and continue to do so regularly. Getting to know Stephen Hough was a particular delight, as he is such a warm and personable individual who I respect musically in every way, but there are so many people I can mention who fall into this category. However, a chance meeting with cellist Stephen Isserlis months after seeing a piano trio concert of his with the violinist Ivry Gitlis at Wigmore Hall sticks out in my memory. It was probably the most wonderful concert I have been to in that Ivry Gitlis’ sense of musical line and direction was the most beautiful and convincing I have ever heard, yet he tuned his violin quite sharp, at A = 448. (at A# and not A) Because of this, much of the performance was not quite ‘in tune’. Half the audience at Wigmore Hall booed, half gave a standing ovation. When I unexpectedly ran into Stephen Isserlis months later, I mentioned this concert, and interrupting me, the first thing he said was, ‘Did you stand or boo?’ I explained how much this concert moved me and he smiled deeply, his eyes glowed, put his hand on my shoulder and nodded with approval.

SMS  What brought you together with Sophie?

KC Sophie and I have known each other since early childhood. Her sister was a piano student of my teacher, and we ran into each other at piano and violin competitions, and at orchestral rehearsals and other musical events. Her brother, resident in London is a good friend of mine, and we share many other mutual friends. Over the years we’ve kept in touch in various ways and she is a great friend and wine companion! In a way, Sophie knows more about me than many of my friends, as we I have known each other for over 30 years. And I’m quite proud of her extensive achievements as a person and violinist!

SMS  What is the music that you most enjoy performing?

KC I enjoy many things, as long as it is great music! Piano Trios are a particular favourite, as are duo sonatas, particularly for strings and piano. But playing Rachmaninoff and Mozart piano concerti are also fun, as is all good music. In my younger days my favourite works were more inclined towards Rachmaninoff and Liszt; these days I still adore Rachmaninoff but really appreciate and enjoy Brahms chamber music, Schubert Piano Sonatas and almost all of Schumann.

SMS  How do composers inspire you?

KC  Rachmaninoff inspires me in many ways. His use of harmony and melody is unrivalled, and if one listens closely to a competent performance, one can hear his use of innovative harmony, hidden within romanticism. If Rachmaninoff sounds pleasant it is missing something! Mahler Symphonies also are just incredible in so many ways, as is the music of Shostakovich, but there are so many composers that inspire me. Beethoven for example I can never get enough of as well, and the optimism, delight and wonder of Mozart is immeasurable.

SMS  How do you decide what works you will perform?

KC It depends on the performance. Sometimes certain works are requested, other times I have free reign towards programming. Often it will gravitate towards what other works I am performing in a season, the demands of my schedule at a particular point in time, or what my chamber music partners demands are! Often with concertos the orchestra artistic director will just ask for a particular work, but it simply depends on circumstance. If I have 5-6 programs at the same time, I will try to consolidate them to some extent to be manageable!

SMS  In your concert for us in August you will be performing three beautiful sonata works - what is it that you find interesting about them, what should our audience be listening for?

KC It is important to know that the works are Duo Sonatas, and not violin works with piano accompaniment. In fact, whilst all three sonatas are absolutely equal between the piano and violin, they are conceived as piano with violin, and not the other way around. It was Mozart who started to lean towards the instruments being equal and Beethoven who established the genre conclusively as equal duo sonatas. An example is in the first two Beethoven Piano and Cello Sonatas which are written with ‘optional cello’, a fact almost laughable today; however this shows their state of conception. They are great examples of chamber music. It is no accident that in these three sonatas, the piano is listed first in the title. After Beethoven, the genre name switches to ‘violin and piano’ and is commonly shortened today to ‘violin’ sonata, something that makes me a little sad!

In this program I love the lyricism of the Mozart K454 and Beethoven Op.12 No.1 Sonatas, they are elegant, yet inevitable, optimistic and cheerful. The Kreutzer I love because it has these but much more - it is a deeply satisfying dramatic work that encompasses the whole gamut of human emotion.

SMS  How do you manage to cope with all the travel that a concert artist needs to do?

KC  I don’t seem to mind the travel. It allows me to have some time to myself, and also to catch up with various friends and colleagues in different cities, and hence provides some social excitement as well. For example, I have special friends in Sydney that I love catching up with. However during travelling, simple pleasures such as an airport lounge and priority seating in a plane become quite important. There is nothing worse than sitting up the back of an aeroplane waiting for the other 200 people to disembark when you have to play a concert that evening.

SMS  Even so, travel certainly sounds a challenge. Do you find you still have to practise? 

KC  One must make time to practise, otherwise a musician’s skill will falter! I don’t call it practise anymore, but simply ‘doing some work’. Practise is vital to every moment of performance, and I strongly believe that one must put in solid practise time for each concert’s preparation. Just because one has played the work before does not mean that you can always pull it out just a few days before, although occasionally schedules will result in this! I don’t need to practise as often as I used to when younger certainly, and if I take a few weeks off, it doesn’t really impact me in the massive way it did when I was studying for example.

SMS  Do you still get nervous before taking part in a big performance?

KC I always am nervous before a big performance, and almost every performance. Having nerves means that you care for the output, and provided your preparation has been good, it generally means that things will be fine on the day. I do wish I was less nervous on occasion though, it can become quite unsettling!

SMS   How do you keep classical music fresh?

KC I’m a big believer in the fact that the music that has stood the test of time speaks for itself. If one plays it well and delivers a captivating dialogue and storyline, I firmly believe that it can convince anyone, and be fascinating to everyone from the experienced concert-goer to a random person pulled off the street! There is no need to keep it fresh, but simply to be dedicated towards honest and interesting interpretation. If you don’t interpret such music well, the attention of the performer and audience dissipates rather quickly. If you do however, it is always enthralling. Within this though, the music one plays must be convincing in itself! Pieces that are less interesting are harder to pull off successfully!

Programming the right works together is also very important. For example, if one places Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata with works by Scott Joplin in one half, it can become quite unsettling.

SMS  Who are the pianists you most admire?

KC I admire many pianists, but I am a fan of ones that place musical values first. Those that engage in theatrics do not impress me, especially if they emphasise virtuosity over quality! Names that I would give anything to hear include Radu Lupu, Solomon, and Maria Jo Peres. Martha Argerich is so exciting. Somebody like Piers Lane is most impressive for his abundant ability to play so many different things so incredibly well at once, and as a former teacher, I know the tremendous detail and thought he places into the musical dialogue.

SMS  What are your music plans and projects for the future? 

KC I just hope to be doing more of what I’m doing now! It’s a hard industry with much excellent competition, and more concerto work would help, but overall I feel very lucky to be in this career and hope that it continues in the same way as the last few years!