Cover Story: Music protégé

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As a young boy, Bobby Chen took to playing the piano almost effortlessly. His talent won him a place in the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School for musically gifted children at the tender age of 11. Chen went on to make a name for himself in the classical music circles of Europe, earning critical acclaim for his concerts and recordings. He is now giving talented Malaysian pianists an opportunity to learn under masters in his alma mater. Chen speaks to Elaine Lau about the course, his inspiring story and the various music projects that keep him busy.

The air of anticipation in the room was palpable. As world-renowned Malaysian-born pianist Bobby Chen took his position at the Yamaha grand piano, a stillness descended upon us, the audience, the silence broken only by the soft whirr of the air-conditioning. We knew we were in for a real treat — Chen is an established name in classical music circles in Europe and has garnered rave reviews from numerous publications for his talent, mastery of technique and beautiful interpretation of the pieces he plays. 

Chen placed his fingers on the keys, and with an almost imperceptible nod, he began the first piece of the night, Beethoven’s lyrical Sonata Op 27 No 2, Moonlight. Chen’s fingers glided effortlessly over the keys, and his body swayed with the music. He would lean in close to the piano, tilt his head to one side as if intently listening to each note he was playing. Then he would straighten up, and look up to the heavens for a second, as if communing with the divine.

Chen took us through selections by Prokofiev, Chopin and Schubert, each one exquisitely played with impeccable technique, control and a style that brings out the gravity of the pieces. The audience sat enthralled throughout, savouring his masterful playing, sometimes with eyes closed, or with nods of approval. Chen ended the recital with Prokofiev’s high-spirited, fast-paced Toccata in D Minor Op 11. His fingers running over the keys with lightning speed, it was mesmerising to hear and watch. The audience was on its feet, applauding and cheering, calling for an encore, which Chen graciously obliged.

Yes, Chen is a virtuoso — that goes without saying — but what stands out more is the sincerity with which he plays, and the honesty that comes forth. There is nothing pretentious about this young man, nothing that hints of arrogance, just a quiet confidence. He hasn’t let success go to his head — in fact, he is self-effacing to the core. His response to someone calling him a “music genius”? “I’m not a genius. I just work hard.”

I met the 31-year-old Chen a few days prior to the recital. The soft-spoken man had an intensity about him, and an air of austerity heightened by the fact that he was dressed head-to-toe in black. But all that melted away when he broke into a smile and revealed an endearing boyishness.

Over the last decade or so, Chen has performed in Kuala Lumpur numerous times with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.

This time, Lord’s Taverners (Malaysia) Bhd in association with The British Malaysian Society brought him home to give two recitals (the next is on June 24 at the ballroom, Hotel Equatorial KL) and to introduce the Yehudi Menuhin Music Course for Malaysian Music Protégés, a project he is spearheading. The admission-by-audition programme, running from Dec 13 to 23 at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, UK, is for talented Malaysian piano students to benefit from top class musical teaching, lectures and concerts (for more information, see sidebar).

Chen himself is an alumnus of the prestigious school for musically gifted children, founded by violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, considered one of the 20th century’s greatest violin virtuosi. This project isn’t the first time Chen has been involved with nurturing young talents; he has been doing this on an informal basis by giving workshops and master classes whenever he is in town.

He found that students (and parents for that matter) place great emphasis on getting the technique right and are obsessed with excelling at piano exams. But there is so much more to learning music than that.

“I always get questions like, ‘How do I get my fingers to play faster?’, or ‘How do I get good grades in exams?’, ‘How do I make my kids so talented?’, things like that. It was like an A + B = C kind of thing. I’ve been trained to not think like that, but think of the general picture. If you think like that, you sort of become a technician or mathematician, a person who knows facts. It becomes like learning law, which is not what learning piano is about,” Chen shared,  revealing that at one time, he himself was overly analytical about piano playing. 

“One of my problems when I was young was I thought too analytically about what I was doing in the context of a performance. When an audience sits there, they don’t want to hear a technical exercise or understand the structure of the music. They want to hear what actually inspired the music in the first place, what the composer was feeling or wanted to portray. We all had to think like that at the school, to see the big picture. It’s not about getting bogged down by things like technique, nor is it about being better than your colleague.”

Hence, the programme for music protégés is to give participants a multifaceted music learning experience. “This thing I’m doing in December at the Yehudi Menuhin School is to give an environment to learn without any sort of end result. You learn not just piano playing, but improvisation, creating new compositions, playing with your colleagues and attending lectures and concerts. You’re just here to learn about music.”

Chen was born in Sandakan, Sabah, and grew up in Kota Kinabalu. Neither of his parents were musically trained, but his mother enjoyed music, particularly choral works. Their neighbour was a piano teacher, and it was at age seven that Chen first encountered the musical instrument that would go on to define his life and career.

Piano playing came naturally to Chen — he took to it almost effortlessly. “I went to my neighbour’s house and played on her piano. She was very kind — I went through all her books,” he recalled. “After about a year, I went to a proper teacher. She was a lady who came from Canada, very energetic lady with frizzy hair, and a very big smile. I finished grade 8 when I was 10.”

I asked what it was about the piano that he loved so much. “I could just be there by myself and play, and it felt good. I just like playing music. And I like to hear things and try things out on the piano. I’ve got ideas, and I used to write them on paper and try it out on the piano and make a piece out of it. I just wanted to do something interesting and there seemed to be a way to do it on the piano.

“I just liked sitting there, to play and make sounds. Sometimes it would be raining outside, and there was a tin roof where I was living. There’s a rhythm to the rain, and I started to play and it sounded good. It became accompaniment in a way. And I would hear my neighbour’s dog, and it’s all part of the whole thing. It was good; it didn’t seem to go against me. [Playing music] interested me as a young kid and didn’t seem to go away.”

Chen’s parents took his God-given ability all in stride, and let him cultivate this love for music unfettered. “My parents never forced or pressured me. That was special,” Chen said. But they did realise that there was a limit to what his teacher in KK could do for him, and his talent could only be developed further with masters. They began exploring different music schools in the UK when he was 10, and he was accepted into the Yehudi Menuhin School, an exclusive international music school for highly gifted children that only had about 60 students.

According to its website, the school was founded “to provide the environment and tuition for musically gifted children from all over the world to pursue their love of music, develop their musical potential, and achieve standards of performance on stringed instruments and piano at the highest level”. The website further on explained that Lord Menuhin in his 30 years of travelling all over the world had seen “the difficulties which children often face when studying music and having to attend normal schooling. He recognised the need to provide musically gifted children with excellent instrumental teachers, adequate time for practice, frequent opportunities for performance, ensemble work with other gifted children, a broad range of other music study and activity, together with a stimulating and creative academic programme”. And so he established a school in 1963 where children could do all that, while also providing general education.Chen’s parents did a startling thing — they decided to move the whole family (which included his younger brother and grandmother) to the UK so Chen could pursue his music education. “They made a huge sacrifice,” Chen conceded. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints his family had to move back to KK after only a few months, and they remain there to this day. Chen’s schooling was supported by scholarships.

At the school, Chen’s precocious talent blossomed under the tutelage of Ruth Nye, who has a solid reputation as one of the world’s foremost piano teachers and teaches at the Royal College of Music in London. “She was very tough on me,” said Chen. “She told me to be honest in what you do. She said all the time that it’s not about fingers. It’s music, and it had origins before the notes. The composer had a vision, an idea, before he put it down on paper. Try to look for that. Don’t create fake things.”

After six years at the school and completing his A-levels, Chen furthered his studies at the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied under Hamish Milne. During this time he bagged no fewer than eight coveted awards, chief of which was Best Final Recital. He graduated with first class honours.

Chen’s first major public performance was in 1996, where he played in a series of concerts including a British tour with Lord Menuhin in a performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. Chen counts that experience as one of the highlights of his career. “I was quite young, 17 at that time. It was the first major tour I did, and it was with Menuhin. I remember I was very humbled to play with him.”

Since then, Chen has gone on to perform in the US, most of Europe, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Australia, China and Brazil with several orchestras, including the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Warsaw Sinfonia and of course our very own MPO. He has also collaborated with numerous conductors like Maximiliano Valdés, Lan Shui, Sir Neville Marriner and Pierre-André Valade. In the UK, he has made appearances in venues such as Bridgewater Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, Purcell Room and Wigmore Hall.

His list of accomplishments doesn’t end there — in addition to playing at various music festivals around the world, Chen has recorded six albums, including the acclaimed Live at the Wigmore Hall and a solo CD of works by Haydn, Liszt, Schubert and Stravinsky, both for Jaques Samuel Recordings. Chen also recorded for the Cello Classics label with cellist Leonid Gorokhov, and Piazzolla’s piano trio music for Illuminate Records which was broadcast on Classic FM. His most recent releases include an all-Prokofiev solo piano disc for SOMM Recordings, and a piano trio recording for Toccata Classics.

While the main focus of his career is as a classical concert pianist, that isn’t all Chen does. “I don’t want to be in a box,” he said. Chen is involved in a number of side projects, one of which is Panoply Ensemble, an experimental music group with violin, classical accordion, guitar, double-bass percussion and Chen on the piano. The ensemble plays original compositions that incorporate oriental and Latin musical elements. “It’s a not a very serious thing. We play for fun. The six of us knew each other for a long time. We fit in concerts for the group around our individual performing careers,” said Chen.

Chen is also part of the Syrius Trio with violinist Elizabeth Cooney and cellist Jane Cords-O’Hara. They come together several times a year to explore the piano trio repertoire, and tour Ireland about three times a year with support from Music Network Ireland. The three share a particular enthusiasm for the advocacy of new music, especially the works of Irish composers. In 2007 the group commissioned a work from Ben Dwyer, one of the leading figures from the younger generation of Irish composers. The Syrius Trio have also just released a CD.Last year, he collaborated with two artists on two different projects. He and French award-winning artist Pia de Richemont created a play within a concert, where music intertwined with the spoken word. The music played and the words uttered gave birth to a story, and gave a glimpse into the inner workings of life as a musician and life as an artist. Chen will be touring with Richemont again to perform this work.

The other collaboration was with Dutch artist Geraldine van Heemstra, where Chen performed Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with Heemstra’s paintings projected on a screen. There are plans also to stage this show again, said Chen. Chen is currently working on another project that melds music performance and poetry recital with two composer friends, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Stephen Goss, and poet Fiona Sampson. The piece looks at the life of German composer Robert Schumann.

“We decided to focus on Schumann because we sympathise with his emotional difficulties. He was trying to balance his creative impulses and urges and sometimes lost control. Schumann was committed to a mental asylum after two attempts at suicide, and it was something he wanted for himself. He later died there. We will also touch on his passionate love affair with his wife, Clara. All musicians and poets understand in varying degrees the forces and impulses that drove Schumann to lunacy.

Often these forces drive musicians, poets and artists to drink, drugs and in some cases, suicide. Mussorgsky drank himself to death, for example. The contrast to this dark side are moments of inspirations, which enable them to produce artistic works of extremely high aesthetic value. We will also touch on that,” said Chen.

When asked what it is that continues to fuel his passion, he said, “I like to play because I like the music I’m playing. It’s never a day I think this is too stressful or annoying. It’s really good music, and it feels good to be able to play in front of people. It’s mainly about the music… it’s very admirable the way the composers put it together. It’s fascinating what these guys put down on paper.” Chen named Bach, Beethoven and Schubert as three of his favourite classical music composers. “Bach’s craftsmanship is amazing. His pieces are like clockwork, like very intricate, pristine works of art. He has so much skill that he doesn’t have to show it. A lot of composers show they can do this or that — Bach just does it. One of his pieces, Art of Fugue, you can take the book and turn it upside down and still play it. He’s quite fantastic, and his music makes sense emotionally.

“Beethoven reaches higher than a lot of other people. His music can inspire you and make you think that man is good … He’s a great composer, serious, completely motivated and single-minded. He’s capable of such delicate things and such huge things — it’s incredible.

“Schubert, his music is so natural, very lyrical. You can sit there and just listen. It’s very simple music that repeats a lot. Like a great song, maybe a Bob Dylan or Norah Jones song, it’s very simple. It makes sense because it seems to be quite grounded, doesn’t sell you anything, doesn’t try to push you, or make you feel you have to be anything — it’s just there.”

During his spare time, Chen can be found spending time with his partner — “a mathematician of sorts” — at the movies, attending a play or a concert, and having a good meal in Kent, where he resides. “I like Indonesian food, very spicy food, and Malaysian food. One of the best ones is a canteen that only Malaysians go to. It’s somewhat hidden, and you have to be Malaysian to get in,” revealed Chen, referring to the Malaysia Hall Canteen that was established in the 1950s in London for Malaysian students and subsidised by the Malaysian High Commission.

After this visit, the next time Chen is slated to be back in KL to perform will be next January with the MPO.

Yehudi Menuhin Music Course for talented Malaysians

As a young boy, Bobby Chen was fortunate to have had the opportunity to develop his musical gift at a prestigious institution where he learned from the masters. Some 20 years later, he has made a name for himself in classical music circles in Europe. And now, he wants to extend the same opportunity he had as a child to talented Malaysian piano students, in the form of a music course at his alma mater, the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, UK.

The music course, from Dec 13 to 23, is for students to benefit from top-class musical teaching, lectures and concerts, and be inspired to bring their experiences back to Malaysia. Students will be able to improve on their existing learning and expand their understanding of classical and Eastern music.

Not only will students be learning to play the piano, they will also learn improvisation, composition and chamber music. Professors will help students to find ways to make use of and incorporate ethnic musical sounds from Malaysia in their music. There will also be an opportunity to attend at least one top-level performance at a major international London concert hall. In addition to Chen, the other instructors who have agreed to teach the course are:

•    Professor Murray McLachlan, head of keyboard at Chetham’s School of Music and tutor at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, as well as artistic director of the Chetham International Summer School and Festival for Pianists. As a concert pianist, McLachlan has received outstanding critical acclaim for intelligent and sensitive interpretations and superb technical ability. His prolific discography has received long-standing international recognition.

•    Professor Ruth Nye, Chen’s tutor, is recognised as one of the world’s foremost piano teachers. She is in demand to conduct master classes in countries around the world and frequently adjudicates on international competition panels.

•    Professor Douglas Finch, head of the keyboard faculty at Trinity College of Music. Finch co-founded The Continuum Ensemble and has collaborated in premiering many new works. He is renowned for his improvisational skills, and has composed for piano, chamber ensemble, orchestra, theatre and film.

•    Dr Cheryl Frances-Hoad, a composer who studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School, Cambridge University and King’s College London. Her works have garnered critical acclaim and won many awards, and she is in ever increasing demand as a composer.

•    Dr Stephen Goss, head of composition at the University of Surrey. As a composer, Goss writes communicative and accessible music that draws freely on a number of styles and genres. He has also performed with various leading orchestras and guitarists.

The course is limited to 20 to 22 students, who will be selected through an audition process. Students need to have a minimum of Grade 6 certification. The course costs £1,000.

Chen is giving a recital with a five-course dinner at Hotel Equatorial Kuala Lumpur on June 24, with proceeds going to fund students in this course. The music and dinner event costs RM280++ per person. Call the hotel at (03) 2161 7777, ext 8219 or 8203, for reservations and more information.

For more information about the music course, contact Chen directly at [email protected].

This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 811, Jun 21-27, 2010