Acclaimed Australian pianist Kristian Chong shares insights into his musical journey ahead of his return to the Llewellyn Hall mainstage.
You completed a law degree before committing to a career in professional performance.
What inspired this pivot and what was it like to return to music in your twenties?
It was quite an odd experience – I was driving to university and struggling to ﬁnd something I wanted to listen to on the radio. I ﬂicked through the channels, accidently found ABC Classic and listened to something which I had played in the past: Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto.
I suddenly appreciated the beauty of the second movement and felt so moved that I sought out a recording. I played it in the car two and a half times before every university examination to calm my mind, and this inspired me to start playing again.
I dropped in on my old teacher, Noreen Stokes, and she suggested I play Prokoﬁev’s Third Piano Concerto – which I did, in a competition. Whilst rehearsing at the Elder Conservatorium, a bunch of students entered. I hadn’t noticed and, when I ﬁnished, they broke into applause. I was immediately hooked.
I enrolled in a Bachelor of Music shortly afterwards; I ﬁnished off my law degree because I was almost all the way through, but did it in such a way that I could never practise law by leaving out a prerequisite subject. It was so refreshing to return to study inspired and driven. Whilst I was a little older than my fellow students, I had more conﬁdence and experience, and as a result more focus.
I studied initially with Stefan Ammer – one of the most complete musicians I have ever come across – before moving to Melbourne to study with Stephen McIntyre. I worked extremely hard and was lucky to win a couple of major competitions which provided opportunities with professional orchestras and organisations such as Musica Viva. I really was all in at that point, and went off to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London with Piers Lane and Christopher Elton, both fabulous musicians.
During and after my studies, I have been fortunate enough to be engaged by major organisations in Australia and to have maintained a busy playing schedule: concerti, solo recitals and much chamber music, as well as teaching at the University of Melbourne.
Music has taken you all over the world.
How have you navigated the pandemic? Are there any particular insights you’ve gained?
The pandemic has made every musician appreciate the industry and the privileges that are associated with performing. We are so lucky to be able to do what we love, and when that was taken away it produced some signiﬁcant challenges.
For me, it was a welcome break from the constant preparation of concerts, which can make one very run down and tired. There is never enough time to prepare, and someone like myself always takes on too much!
At the same time, there was the constant worry about whether things would return in the same manner, which has major ﬁnancial implications.
I was lucky enough to be asked to play for the Australian Digital Concert Hall; in 2020 I performed over 10 recitals for them, and a few in 2021 as well. My teaching activities increased; whilst online, it was a way to survive and keep engaged.
A particular challenge was not being able to practice where I normally work. Luckily Yamaha stepped in to rescue me with the loan of a hybrid piano – with a real piano action but no strings – so I could practice in my apartment and not annoy my many neighbours! (I am a Yamaha artist.)
I think I will never take anything for granted from this experience!
This concerto has a unique harmonic palette…the opening movement is lively and quite explosive, whilst the second movement has a beautiful sense of warmth and sincerity.
Malcolm Williamson described his Second Piano Concerto as ‘an overtly Australian work aiming at spontaneity and vigour’.
How would you describe its character? What should audiences listen out for?
This concerto has a unique harmonic palette: it is quite active and quirky, with much interjection between the orchestra and piano. The opening movement is lively and quite explosive, whilst the second movement has a beautiful sense of warmth and sincerity in the textures and melodic lines.
The last movement has some jazz inﬂuence in the harmonic progressions, more sarcastic at times than serious! I think it requires an extroverted personality, which I deﬁnitely have!
How do you prepare yourself in the hours leading up to a performance?
I like to relax during the day and save my energy for the performances, but one also needs to play and make sure that the work is secure. Sometimes I practice right through the day and then play.
It is important to be accustomed to the instrument you are performing on. At times access is limited if it is a major concert hall, so I normally spend some time with the performance piano on the day.
Have you spent much time in Canberra? Any favourite places?
I’ve performed in Canberra often and have visited socially as well. This is my third performance with the Canberra Symphony; I played Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Rhapsody in 2016 and Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto in 2009.
In terms of favourite places, I love the National Gallery if I have some time, and Canberra has some new, funky wine bars which I love to relax in! The Ovolo Nishi hotel is one of my favourite hotels.