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Huayi 2020: An Interview with Star Pianist Tony Yike Yang

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At the tender age of 16, Chinese-Canadian pianist Tony Yike Yang took the music world by storm when he became the youngest-ever laureate at the prestigious 2015 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw. Now, the young prodigy is set to make his Southeast Asian debut at the Esplanade, performing a solo recital as part of this year’s edition of Huayi – Chinese Festival of the arts.

Known for being able to balance both technique and musicality in his performances, the concert will feature Stravinsky-Agosti’s Firebird Suite and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, along with a specially curated programme that features pieces by Chopin, Schumann and Chinese composer-conductor Tan Dun. With plenty of accolades to his name and a long list of concerts around the world he’s performed in, we spoke to Tony about his journey towards becoming a world-class pianist, and his own experience as a ‘firebird’ in his own right:

Bakchormeeboy: You’re currently pursuing a dual-degree in Economics and Piano Performance through the Harvard University-New England Conservatory of Music Joint-Degree Programme. Is it difficult to shift your mindset and transition between the two, or is it in fact, a relief to have these two ‘modes’ of thinking? 

Tony: Although it is more work to pursue a dual-degree program in two very distant fields, I do find it to be quite relieving to have these two ‘modes’ of thinking. I have a lot of different interests in life, and the fact that I’m pursuing two different degrees at two very different educational institutions allows me to explore a lot of those interests. I also find that it is very difficult and often times inefficient to just focus on one thing all the time. Having various things to care about helps me retain my freshness for every activity I do, and it’s important to feel that way as an artist. You don’t want your artistic interpretation or creation to sound sloppy or overdone. Instead, you want it to sound full of life and artistic inspiration – just like the way you’d expect a steak at a Michelin-starred restaurant: juicy, tender, and not too overcooked. And in my opinion, the “over-cooking” is best prevented (for most people, unless if you’re really a crazy genius for which the following would not apply) by introducing a variety into your life such that when you’re tired of working on one thing, you can take a break by working on another thing, and return to the former once you’re feeling refreshed again.

Bakchormeeboy:  As the youngest-ever laureate at the prestigious 2015 Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw, did you ever imagine that success for you would come so soon? How do you push yourself to scale new heights and constantly reach new goals when you’ve already set such a high bar for yourself?  

Tony: When I applied for the Chopin Competition in 2015, in no way did I expect to go as far as I did. It’s a tradition for the Chopin Competition to cover all of your accommodations and travel expenses if you’re a selected participant of the competition, and when they asked me how I’d like my ticket to be booked, I asked for a return ticket at the conclusion of the second round. So in other words, I mainly prepared for the first and second rounds of the competition. I briefly scraped the third round repertoire here and there, but there was absolutely no preparation done for the finals. I had learned the concerto a few years earlier, but I basically didn’t give myself the chance to pick it up again until after I had gotten into the finals. It still renders clear in my head that at the announcement of the finalists, my tears were of both extreme happiness and panic. So no, I did not imagine that this kind of competition success would come into my life so early.

While I am quite a naturally ambitious person, I’ve been trying not to push myself too hard lately. I used to make a lot of plans for what I’m going to do or achieve in a certain period of time, but I’ve realized that plans and expectations rarely go as expected – especially in the industry of music where a lot of things can be spontaneous. Therefore, now I’m just focused on honing my craft, and concentrating on the things in which only I can control, such as the acquiring of new skills, knowledge, and insight. These are things that nobody can take away from you, and so I view them as the most valuable. After you’ve put in the work and done everything you can to expand your horizons, the rest is a matter of time, and all you can really do is wait – but always be prepared while you wait. This kind of mindset, I believe, is what works best for me in trying to scale new heights.

Bakchormeeboy: At what point in your life did you decide to dedicate and throw yourself completely into becoming a pianist, and what was it that spurred you into pursuing this dream? 

Tony: Just like everything else, the mental process of wanting to dedicate one’s life to classical music takes time. Therefore, it is very difficult to pinpoint one point (or points) in my life that made me want to throw myself into a career of music. I think pursuing this dream of music, for me, was a very gradual process. I would say that I’m a rather emotionally sensitive person, so I tend to value personal enjoyment and fulfilment a lot more than anything else. In other words, I try my best to really only do what I like. With that being said, I feel like my affection for music has grown perpetually over the years to the point that I cannot imagine myself enjoying a life without music anymore. Of course, there were several key competition and performances successes along the way that are responsible for some of the short-term happiness and motivation I had over the years, but at the end of the day, it is my true love for the music itself that is the real and long-lasting driving force behind my dedication to this career.

Bakchormeeboy: Talent is something that the world has no shortage of, but must be given the right nurturing and opportunity to be showcased to lead a person to success. What would you say was the greatest factor in your life that has led to your career taking flight from such a young age? 

Tony: They say that with talent must come hard work. But what drives the willingness to work hard? In my opinion, the answer to that question – and to yours – is passion. With passion, the hard work and long hours that are necessary to make a career in any field comes quite naturally. With passion, the work that you have to do may not necessarily feel like work. Therefore, with enough passion – to the point where you’re willing to take risks & make sacrifices for that passion – you will eventually find the kind of nurturing and opportunities you need towards the path of success.

Bakchormeeboy: As a Western form, classical piano music opportunities are still primarily rooted in European countries. Do you think there will ever come a time where non-Western pianists no longer have to travel to competitions or institutions in the West to prove themselves as worthy of being appreciated for their talent?  

Tony: Well, the fact is that many new-and-coming piano competitions and institutions are currently being developed in the East. Some of the most well-known Western institutions (like Juilliard, for example) are starting to make their mark in the East. In addition to that, there has been and continues to be an exponential rise in the interest for classical music in many of the East Asian countries in recent years. So, my answer to your question is that what you suggested could very well be possible. Only time can tell.

Bakchormeeboy: Your concert is titled ‘Firebird’, putting the image of a phoenix rising from the ashes to mind. Was there ever a point in your life where you felt you were metaphorically in the ‘ashes’? If so, what was it that allowed you to rise from them to become a firebird?

Tony: The inspiration for the concert title ‘Firebird’ actually just comes from one of the pieces that I’ll be playing for the recital: Stravinsky’s Firebird (piano transcription by Agosti), which also happens to be the finale work for the recital. 

In terms of relating my life to the idea of a firebird, I would say that there have been times in which I have faced setbacks and/or rejections in my both my career and personal life that have left me to feel as if I was living in the ‘ashes’, but as mentioned previously, the existence of passion for all that I do always ends up being the driving force that allows me to rise from these low points in life. 

But looking back at it all, it is the experience of having lived through these ‘ashes’ that have enabled me to soar higher than ever before. So really, the firebird and its surrounding ashes are perfectly complementary with each other – you can’t have one without the other.

Bakchormeeboy: As the start of a new decade, where do you see yourself at the end of the next 10 years?

Tony: I don’t know. I try to not plan that far ahead. But what I do know is that I’ll want to be at a place in my life where I’m surrounded by lots of sincere and loving people. I hope that I’ll be happy and proud of what I’ve done and who I’ve become, leaving behind as few regrets as possible.

Firebird – Piano Sensation Tony Yike Yang Solo Recital plays on 2nd February 2020 at the Esplanade Recital Studio as part of Huayi Festival 2020. Tickets available here

The 2020 Huayi – Chinese Festival of the Arts takes place around the Esplanade from 31st January to 9th February 2020. For the full list of programmes and tickets, visit the Esplanade website here

 

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