In Conversation with Young Pianist Tony Yun

Vantage Music | October  2023 | Hong Kong

Vantage Music recently had the chance to talk to Tony Yun, a Canadian pianist who won first prize at the First China International Music Competition and was also the winner of the Kissinger KlavierOlymp. Tony’s musical journey has taken him from Beijing to New York, and he kindly gave us an insight into it in this interview.

Current Repertoire

Tony was to perform Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude at Hong Kong City Hall the day after this interview took place. He told us that his reason for choosing this piece was that it differed significantly from Liszt’s other repertoire, with which most people would be familiar. A poem is attached to this piece that tells how the protagonist constantly questions aspects of life whilst talking to God. “I’d like to think that the piece begins with a baritone singing alone,” Tony said. “The beginning of the poem reads ‘where comes, my God, this peace that floods me?’” The piece, as part of Liszt’s late works, reflected the composer’s increasing religiosity as he got older. In contradiction to what the piece’s title might suggest, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude tries to take audiences to another place, through the practice of active thinking. “It’s a satisfying piece to play and to connect with the audience,” Tony commented.

Wasserklavier from Luciano Berio’s Six Encores for Piano was also on the programme for the same concert, which took place in November 2022. When asked about his connection with this particular composer, Tony said that, although he had known and enjoyed Berio’s music for many years, he had not come across this piece before. Suggested to him by his mentor, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Wasserklavier literally translates as “water piano”, where the player tries to create silence through music.

Another piece in the programme was Brahms’s Piano Sonata no. 3 in F minor, which is a huge work. Tony enthused over it: “It’s the most gorgeous piece ever written… The second movement is a love story.” It would always be difficult to maintain the emotion in a piece that is more than 20 minutes long; however, Tony loved the Piano Sonata so much that it felt like the piece was over very quickly. To enhance his playing and enjoyment of the piece, Tony also studied the piece to know the structure well. As for other works by Brahms, Tony has played the two piano concerti, three intermezzi, op. 117, and the Six Pieces for Piano, op. 118, as well as the composer’s first sonata. Of all the composers he has played, Mozart is the only one whose musical development was difficult to witness as he lived a relatively short life compared to the likes of Beethoven and Brahms.

Early Beginnings and Music Education

Tony was not born into a particularly musical family. Although his parents loved listening to classical music, they were not professional musicians. In fact, Tony’s older sister was the first to bring music into the family by learning the violin. At the age of four, Tony moved to Beijing. Tired of fighting with his sister over the violin, Tony wanted his own musical instrument to play. Whilst walking through music stores in shopping malls, Tony decided that he fancied a piano for himself. When he finally acquired a piano, the young pianist-to-be started practising for a mere 10 minutes a day before he started to play professionally at only 11 years old.

It was at Dulwich College in Beijing that Tony received his high-school academic education, attending alongside his studies piano lessons under Jin Zhang at the Central Conservatory of Music. He then moved to New York at the age of 15 and studied at the renowned Juilliard School, pre-college entrance. During his piano practice sessions as a child, Tony recalled that his teacher would put pressure on him indirectly through the medium of his parents, as it was not easy to get through to an 11-year-old. Tony admitted that there were times when he felt weary from practising, but knew at the bottom of his heart that he still loved playing the piano. As for repertoire, Tony received a solid grounding in musical technique, having played a great deal of Mozart, Bach and Chopin études.

Dulwich College had a great impact on the young Tony: it was here that he received a wealth of performance opportunities. The college has a 750-seat concert hall where Tony was able to practise every day after school, and, on top of this privilege, the college awarded Tony the funds to purchase his own piano, which he was allowed to hand-pick himself. Despite being an academic school, Dulwich encouraged its students to pursue their passion in music, and Tony performed there every semester – oddly, more often than whilst at Juilliard. It was only later in his career that Tony entered the world of chamber music, since playing with other musicians is an advanced skill which he would cultivate at a later stage.

Becoming a Professional Pianist

Starting on a professional music career came naturally for Tony, since playing in front of an audience was what he loved to do: he could not see himself doing anything else. Around the age of 14, Tony felt strongly that performing on the piano was what he would do for a living – and now, at 21 years old, Tony is relishing his lifestyle as a performing artist. The young pianist lives life day by day, travelling to a variety of countries, jumping from the airport to the concert hall. However, despite the many highs, Tony made mention of one noticeable disadvantage of being a professional solo pianist: the inevitable loneliness that sometimes comes from practising and performing on a solo instrument.

This leads smoothly into how Tony feels about the piano. The piano is an effective tool for expression, which may even supersede talking. Tony loves communicating to people through music, and he could not imagine life without the piano.

On the topic of the transition between intuitive playing and conscious playing (something with which many musicians struggle), Tony told us that he also went through such a phase but that it did not cause him much pain or distress. “You have to combine the rules with what you want to express as an artist,” he said. Nowadays, Tony likes to brainstorm ideas at a desk rather than on a piano. He finds this more effective overall, as it helps him to learn and absorb more.

As a prize winner in renowned international competitions such as the First China International Music Competition (2019) and the Kissinger KlavierOlymp (2022), Tony was in the perfect position to share his thoughts on the nature of the competition beast. According to him, it very much depends on the musician’s mindset: if you see it as an opportunity to perform, then competitions are healthy and can potentially launch your international music career. On the other hand, if losing a competition provokes bad feelings and discouragement, then it is not such a good thing. However, entering competitions is not on Tony’s current agenda. He believes that preparing very specific repertoire for the sake of a competition can sometimes be a waste of time, taking valuable time away from learning new and different pieces.

When asked about role models, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (who Tony met at the International Music Competition in Beijing and who later became his mentor) has had a great influence on the young pianist. “He is also a source of inspiration,” Tony added. Additionally, his piano teachers, Professors Matti Raekallio and Yoheved Kaplinsky, have both instilled in Tony a passion for music and encouraged him to be who he is as an artist.

Collaborations and Performances

As a solo pianist, Tony enjoys playing with orchestras and working with a variety of different conductors. In our interview, he expressed his enjoyment of discussing music with other musicians, as well as hearing different opinions on repertoire. In Tony’s eyes, the perfect situation would be when everyone is on the same page and has the same ideas – and this is exactly what working with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin is like, as well as when playing chamber music with friends. So far, musical collaboration with other musicians has been a hugely enjoyable and beneficial experience for Tony. Furthermore, through performing, Tony often meets modern composers in rehearsals at concert halls. Another place where he might perform commissioned collaborations is at the Juilliard School, where there is a large cohort of composition-major students. Just recently, Tony has performed a piece written for him by a friend.

One key aspect of a professional musician’s career is unexpected scenarios and situations during live performance – and Tony knows about this all too well. At nine years old, Tony had to deal with a situation where the lights suddenly went out during a concert in Guangzhou. “It was pitch dark for about two minutes,” Tony recounted. “I was playing Chopin’s Grand Polonaise. I continued for a minute then stopped when there was a big jump [in the music] and I couldn’t see.” The audience put on torches on their phones to try to help. Everything returned to normal shortly after that. On another occasion, the fire alarm went off at the Juilliard School a minute before Tony was due to go on stage. “Everyone had to evacuate. It was a cold December and I didn’t have my coat with me.”

We then quizzed Tony on his preparation before a performance: “It’s like blind dates with the piano.” Since the instrument (a piano) cannot be carried around easily, the pianist has to familiarise himself/herself with the piano in situ at the concert venue. “No matter how much you prepare, there are always unknowns,” Tony remarked.

Effects of the Pandemic

During the pandemic, Tony participated in many online concerts including Steinway’s Concert Series. “It was reassuring to still be able to listen to music online,” he said. Like many other musicians, Tony agreed that live performances can never be replaced. “There is something missing in livestream concerts,” he elaborated. “Something emotionally lacking. You have to be in the same space, breathing the same air, to get all the nuances and be inspired.” In a performance, the presence of the audience is as important as the piece of music that is being played.

Upcoming Projects

The talented young pianist’s most recent engagement was a season subscription debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, which took place on 2 February 2023, and where Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor was on the programme. On the topic of the Schumanns, Tony mentioned that he had in the past played Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto – a challenging piece for a pianist to learn but one that, to the audience, paradoxically sounds as though it might be quite easy.

In the upcoming season, Tony will be playing the complete Debussy études. We were interested in what Tony wants to achieve in the future, or even in 10 years’ time. His response? He never wants to think too far ahead; he just hopes to be able to continue to share music with others. However, he would love to learn some contemporary repertoire, of which there is a wealth to explore.

We wish Tony all the best with his current engagements and future endeavours.