Elijah Ferrian converses with acclaimed British-Vietnamese recording and performance pianist, Tra Nguyen.
When did you realise that the piano was the right medium for your artistic expression?
Even though I started learning piano at 5 years old, the piano has become an inseparable part of me. It became my voice when I was 14, as a student in Moscow. There I discovered the whole new world of art scenes, of live concerts, galleries and museums that a child from Vietnam probably would not have been exposed to. Until that point I was learning piano instinctively, but in Moscow I discovered that art is relevant to my future, yet at the same time it is a door for one to be outrageous, to be a dreamer, to be anything that inner creativity can inspire.
What’s on your schedule right now?
In theory I am taking a year off to explore Asia, my roots. After almost 30 years being away in Europe it is time for that. But there are a few performances scheduled with my colleagues in Vietnam and I am preparing new works for upcoming recordings in Hong Kong and the UK.
How would you compare and contrast the different music scenes in say Vietnam or the UK, in your experience?
The classical music scene in the UK is clearly more robust and it has been well-established as it is tradition, and there is a lot more funding from different sources to support arts, despite complaints concerning the funding cuts from the Arts Council. Comparing that to Vietnam is a little tricky as Vietnam is still a developing country and the funding for the Arts is very limited despite the sizes and the populations of the two countries are similar. What’s more exciting about Vietnam than other Asian countries that I have been to is that there are more young people in the audience. That is something I am enthusiastic about!
What or who have been your biggest influences as an artist?
There are so many things and many people in my life that are truly inspirational, but the human voice has been a rich source of exploration for me. The rawness of the immediate communication that the human voice can project is astonishing. You have the whole world of colours and expressions in it. I always try to make the piano speak, sing, or cry when I perform. As if it is a person
How would you describe the positive experiences and negative experiences of being a professional musician?
The positive thing is that most of us musicians are doing this job out of our passion, so it is pretty wonderful to feel essentially alive while doing it professionally. The negative things depend on each person’s wishes and desires, I suppose. For me, the positives always outweigh the negatives (jet lags, bad pianos, etcetera), so I don’t really have anything to complain about.
Where do you find the current classical music scene to be at? Do you find it to be growing, or remaining similar to when you started?
That is a big question. If one thinks of the classical music scene from commercial terms: the overall answer may be that it shrunk a little compared to the 1970s or the 1980s as far being popular for people to see a performance or listen to recordings, but it is a growing scene in Asia. Young people that I have met here are much more informed and aware about what’s going on in Paris, London, Berlin or New York classical music scenes more than my generation was back then. They are eager to go to live performances in order to learn, and also to experience the music. I think overall it will be ebbs and flows everywhere depending on many social factors, but I am optimistic that something that is such a formidable form of human expression is here to stay. You know, almost every production of the Greek Tragedies in London is sold-out and running for weeks – that should tell us something!
What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion?
I think a good live performance should have the lift-up effect that can make the audience forget that they are sitting and watching anything. It should make the audience feel that they are taking part and experiencing the performances the same way the performers do, from within. This is very difficult to achieve!
Do your best to describe your style. What are you proud of, or what makes your playing stand out?
I think what I do is act as a medium between myself and the composers. For the composers, writing music is a form of expression and communication. It is essential that the ‘message’ is delivered. Ninety-percent of our works are being done before we walk on stage. We are researching, learning, practising and once onstage, we have to erase the barrier between the stage and the audience so that we all can experience the music. Creating a fluidity between the composers, performers and the audience. Sincerity is the key, I think. Of course, one needs a strong sense of structure, like a stage director to deliver the details, but without sincerity, the performance is just a show. Not a true musical experience. I would like to think that I live sincerely with my performances.
You are given the position of artistic director of a concert hall. What would be on your programme for this season?
I definitely would like to explore things off the beaten track. There should be a sense of daring in programming. Mixing the known and the lesser-known. Symphonic works of Joachim Raff and Myaskovsky, Medtner songs, chamber works of young composers. There is so much wonderful music out there that is not being performed, and we should change that!
Have you ever tried playing a different instrument? If yes, how good were you at it?
I first learnt the violin, and was completely rubbish at it, so I managed to persuade my father to let me try the piano (which is a more expensive option for beginners) and I hope it has paid off now!
If you weren’t performing and recording music, what do you think you would be doing right now instead? If music never became your passion?
It is very difficult for me to imagine myself as a non-musician. In this life I am born to make music. If for some reason I couldn’t play, I would probably be involved in something creative. Something that would allow me to travel. I am essentially an introvert, therefore writing would be something I could fall in love with.