Interview with Kristian Chong

By Vantage Magazine | May 2018

In January 2018, Australia-based pianist Kristian kindly hosted a masterclass for our young musicians while he was visiting Hong Kong for a recording project with flautist Megan Sterling. Despite his busy schedule, Vantage had a quick conversation with him.

VM: Could you tell us more about your music learning when you were young? How did you come to learn the piano? What was your experience/feelings learning music at that time? What was your mode of learning: driven by parents, teachers or peers or self-motivated?

KC: My mother had always wanted to learn when she was much younger and never had the opportunity, so I think she seized the occasion for me! At home, we had a medium-sized electronic organ and when I was extremely young I used to muck around on it. That must have seen something she noticed and enrolled me for piano lessons when I was three. At a younger age, I did not particularly enjoy being forced to practise, although I knew somehow that I was certainly more able than some others around me when I went for competitions and in examinations always passed with flying colours. My teachers certainly helped and nurtured not only my musical development but also my mind too. Keeping up enthusiasm, encouragement and interest from teacher to student is very important and is often ignored by many.

From a young age, I was quite fortunate in that my musical influences and training was from some of the finest Australian musicians. My violin teacher was Australian violinist Beryl Kimber, herself a student of David Oistrakh and the piano Noreen Stokes, both of whom were on staff at the Elder Conservatorium of Music at the University of Adelaide and I was a student there from the early age of nine.

Noreen Stokes fostered my musical development extremely well and was herself a great musician who had played with many prominent worldwide artists, but all I wanted was to play more basketball than piano! As is the case with many kids in Hong Kong, the time demands were extreme and I became quite rebellious because I felt music was unnecessary! By the age of fifteen, I had stopped violin lessons and did the bare minimum for piano. This is surprising considering my career, but the input from my teachers was substantial in that they instilled excellent musical values whilst knowing that I had other focuses in my life.

My musical education was driven therefore by my teachers and my mother and I just coasted along without too much effort. There was much success, but I never intended to be a pianist.

VM: We know that the main purpose of your trip is to do a recording with flautist Megan Sterling – how did it come about? Anything special about the programme to be recorded? When the album will be released? 

KC: Megan has been a long-time friend of mine from Australia but we did not work together until I started to visit Hong Kong regularly from about 2003. She was appointed the principal flute of Hong Kong Philharmonic in 2002 and has been here ever since. Hong Kong is the perfect place to stop over when travelling between London and Australia for concerts (it’s one of my favourite cities) and Megan suggested we play some chamber music together. She won the Hungarofest International Flute Competition in Budapest in 2003 and as part of that prize she was offered concerts in Boston and we played there in 2005. We loved collaborating together and as a result have played together many times since, in Hong Kong, Australia and China too. She has the most amazing sound and is a great musician.

In this recording we are playing three major Australian flute and piano works, alongside three popular and mainstream flute and piano works by Poulenc, Frank Martin and Gaubert. The Australian works are Carl Vine’s Sonata for Flute and Piano, Miriam Hyde’s 5 Works for Piano and Flute and a small composition by Anne Boyd called Goldfish through Summer Rain. We are really fortunate to be recorded by producer Philip Rowlands, who recently recorded the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s Ring Cycle and is an old friend from my time in London.

The recording will take a few months to edit but we’re hoping that will be finished by the end of this year.

VM: Looking at your website’s biography, your early music education was in Australia. Why and how did you decide to study at the RAM?

KC: The Royal Academy of Music is one of the best music schools in the world. Of course, I considered many other places to study but really it was the choice of teachers that made me choose the RAM over other great schools, as well as the opportunity to meet like-minded individuals. Also, in London there was no language barrier for me as opposed to places such as Germany or France and there are many Australians who end up in London.

VM: What have been the highlights of your performing career?

KC: There are many performances and highlights that I am proud of and these aren’t always related to locations in particular, but rather are memorable because they went well. An engaging and satisfactory performance is always much more satisfying than one in a high-profile venue that might have not gone as planned. In the chamber realm, there are many groups and instrumentalists whom I have been honoured to work with, for example the Australian String Quartet, cellist Li-Wei Qin and violinist Natsuko Yoshimoto in piano trios and other violinists such as Dale Barltrop, Vadim Gluzman and Ilya Konovalov (concertmaster of Israel Philharmonic). Concerto performances are always memorable, including Britten with the Adelaide Symphony and recently Saint-Saëns’s 2nd with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in New Zealand. Playing in great locations such as the Forbidden City in Beijing, Sydney Opera House, the beautiful Isabella Gardener Museum in Boston is just as exciting as playing in different and unexpected locations such as Zimbabwe, and more remote cities in China too. But I will quickly move on in my mind from a performance to the next challenge that approaches: one must never rest and you are only as good as your last performance, which means your next performance needs to be better!

VM: What is your favourite music?

KC: There is so much music I enjoy performing; it is hard to pinpoint a particular thing. As long as it is great music I am happy! Piano trios are a particular favourite, as are duo sonatas, particularly for strings and piano. But playing great concertos is always also fun, as is all good music. In my earlier days I was more inclined towards virtuosity in composers such as Rachmaninoff and Liszt; I was in fact obsessed with the third Rachmaninoff concerto and I still am! I still absolutely adore Rachmaninoff but really appreciate and enjoy Brahms chamber music and Schubert piano sonatas. In recent times I have been performing Schubert’s last Piano Sonata in B flat major and it transports me to another place every single time. It is this type of music that truly inspires me.

VM: How do music and composers inspire you?

KC: The music of Rachmaninoff inspires me in many ways and I feel he is the perfect link from the past to the future. The way he utilises harmony and melody is unrivalled, yet one can hear his approach very clearly in the great earlier composers. If one listens closely to an excellent rendition, you can hear his use of inventive harmony, hidden within romanticism. If Rachmaninoff sounds ‘nice’ it is very much lacking something! The symphonies of Mahler also are just staggering, as is the Shostakovich. Beethoven also is such a great composer – I don’t think there is anything I don’t like. Just recently I came across a voice and piano work which made me chuckle, his Op.98, but also his symphonies are just fabulous. And one can never get enough of the optimism and charm of Mozart. With great music there is always more to be found in the score, even after knowing something for many years.

VM: How do you choose your concert repertoire?

KC: One often thinks artists choose their favourite works and that is true, but it really depends on the situation and performance. Often, certain works are requested; other times I have free rein towards programming. It will always lean towards what I am performing at a particular point in time, the demands of my schedule, or who I am playing chamber music with! With concerto repertoire, the orchestra’s artistic director often suggests a particular work, but if you wish to change this it will need to fit in with the rest of that orchestra’s program for the evening! If I have numerous programmes simultaneously, I will try to consolidate them to some extent to be manageable!

VM: Surely being experienced means you don’t get nervous anymore, or do nerves affect you?

KC: Nerves are part of almost every performer’s issues. I do not know one that is not slightly aware of the situation. Of course, some cope better than others, but if someone says they are not even slightly nervous, I always treat them with a little suspicion! I am always nervous before a big performance and almost every performance, as it means that you very much care for the music and how it goes and, provided preparation has been proper, it generally means that things will be great on the day. Nerves can unsettle everyone, even the greatest of performers.

VM: You must travel often. Do you enjoy the travel and how do you manage to cope with this?

KC: I really quite enjoy the travel although at times sitting on an aeroplane for hours is mind-numbing. But it allows me to have some time to myself during the actual travel and being in different places allows me to keep up with the many friends and colleagues I have in different cities. For example, I have very special friends in Hong Kong that I love catching up with and I love eating out here; you can almost go anywhere and be guaranteed an excellent time. But during the actual journey pleasures such as priority access and airport lounges become quite important. There is nothing worse than sitting up the back of an aeroplane waiting for the other people to disembark when you have to play complicated and difficult music later in the day.

VM: Do you need to practise as much as you did beforehand? With such a busy lifestyle how do you find time?

KC: At every stage in one’s career, you must practise, otherwise things will simply not go as you want them to! There is no substitute for practice and you must put in the time every time for every performance. Just because you have performed a particular work before does not allow you to just touch it up a few days before, although occasionally with crazy travel schedules and other repertoire this may happen from time to time; these performances are often the most nerve-wracking! However, I don’t need to practise as much as I used to but these days my practice is much more efficient and I don’t waste time playing works from beginning to end (as I used to do!). And I take a few weeks off; it doesn’t really impact me in the massive way it did when I was studying, for example.

VM: Do you think classical music has a big future? Will its popularity decline with time?

KC: I truly believe that the music that has stood the test of time speaks for itself and that if the elucidation is great, with a captivating dialogue and storyline, it will satisfy anyone and be absorbing to all from the experienced concertgoer to a random person pulled off the street! Simply being dedicated towards honest and interesting interpretation will result in the music being captivating. 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. It’s like a movie: if it doesn’t tell the storyline well, one switches off, and this is exactly the same in music – with every piece being a storyline. After all, music is language!

VM: Who are the pianists that you respect and why?

KC: The world has so many pianists and I respect many, but I truly admire the ones who place musical values first and can deliver the storyline of the piece in such a great manner that respects both the composer and the musical values they believe in. Pianists that engage in visual theatrics I cannot stand, and especially those that value virtuosity over musical quality! Those that I really enjoy and respect include Radu Lupu, Sokolov and Maria João Pires. Martha Argerich is so exciting and human.

VM: How do you see your musical career evolving and changing over the near future?

KC: There are many plans for the future but they all involve more performing and being able to maintain an active concert schedule. I’d love to record more solo, chamber and concerto repertoire, but I just hope that my concert career is maintained at a similar rate to what it has been in the last few years! Teaching seems to be increasing as I become more sought after with students and it is such an important thing to pass on knowledge to those who will also pass on the same knowledge to the future.

VM: How do you manage the time between teaching, practising and learning new pieces?

KC: Managing one’s time is extremely difficult. I work long hours and am often under tremendous amounts of pressure. However, over time it becomes manageable and when you love your job it is not as daunting as one would expect it to be. It is important to organise one’s time so that one has the time to play in new repertoire, but often, realities of life mean that you do have to learn new works extremely efficiently and often at the last minute.