Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?
I was growing up in Hanoi right after the war so taking up piano was not exactly my conscious decision, given the trying circumstances that we were all facing. My father, though, was a violinist, a graduate from the Moscow Conservatory, had noticed that I had some musical abilities and was very persistent that I would take up an instrument. After my refusal to play the violin (too difficult !), he miraculously found a second-hand piano that I was much more happy to get on with. My father certainly had ignited the love for music that has become my close companion since.
Who or what were the most important influences on your playing?
I do find that most things are closely interconnected: human voice plays a substantial part in my understanding of sound – innate and comparative; literature helps me to understand the psychological architecture and the narrative sense of a music composition; visual arts inspire me to explore different spectrums and shapes of sound and, more importantly, the relationships with people in my life teach me to understand the emotional meaning of all the above.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The greatest challenge so far is to view what I love doing most as a career. I constantly struggle with this concept since certain things that are considered to be good for the ‘career’ nowadays can kill true creativity. We are living in an era where most things are expected or forced to happen instantly while the truth is ars longa, vita brevis.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I don’t have one that I am totally happy with – but when it happens that the music directs me, draws out unexpected things in concerts or in the recording studio, it feels quite good!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
As long as there is an audience who wants to listen, am in it.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love to play many things (not always from the solo repertoire) but performing the ‘Andante’ from Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto brings a deep sense of wonder. It feels very special to be a living part of such an ethereal sound world, breathing and creating it on spot with other musicians.
I listen all the time so on top of a very long list, can I have more Lully and Medtner’s songs?
Who are your favourite musicians?
There are so many musicians that I admire: Edwin Fischer, Clara Haskil, Henrich Neuhaus, Carlos Kleiber, Kathleen Ferrier are the first ones that came to mind. When you listen to these performers, music is what you hear first, not the “performance” nor “interpretation”.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There are two: the first one is listening to Richter playing a Bach recital by candlelight in Moscow when I was a child. Time simply stopped. I hadn’t known until then that such beauty existed.
Second is witnessing Sir Colin Davis conducting Sibelius Fifth Symphony in London:- in the finale, just a few seconds before the famous climax reached its height, he stepped back, stopped conducting altogether and let the musicians continue by themselves. That was a great gesture of trust and the result was that as if the music was set to be free, it flew up and exploded into a firework of sounds and emotions – very moving.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
For learning as well as performing: listen with your mind but see with your heart.
If you are a pianist, go out and make music with your fellow musicians: learning Schubert’s Winterreise is as important as learning Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier!
What are you working on at the moment?
A selection of piano sonatas for my upcoming recital at the Wigmore Hall:
Clementi Sonata in f sharp minor op.25 no.5
Schubert Sonata D664
Scriabin Sonata no.6 op.62
Chopin b minor sonata op.58
What is your most treasured possession?
My windows. I live in a small place but it is quite high so the far-reaching view keeps things in different prospective. The ever-changing sky accompanied by London’s diverse rhythm is the most valuable live painting that I could ever own.
Tra Nguyen is making her Wigmore debut on 16th December 2012. For more information and tickets please visit the Wigmore Hall website
Tra plays Annäherung (Reconciliation) from ‘Frühlingsboten’ (Spring Harbinger) op.55, by Joachim Raff
British-Vietnamese Tra Nguyen gave her first concert when she was ten, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto, K488 with the Hanoi Conservatory Orchestra. Since then she has continued to engage audiences worldwide. Past and future performances include Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tokyo Opera City, Hong Kong City Recital Hall and Wigmore Hall amongst others. Her imaginative programming balances core repertoire and lesser-known music, winning critical praises. Her discography introduces many world première recordings of neglected music. Her most recent recordings of the piano music of Joachim Raff were chosen as Album of the Week by the Independent in March 2010 and in April 2012.
Tra studied with Lev Naumov at the Moscow Conservatory and with Christopher Elton at the Royal Academy of Music.
Interview date: December 2012