Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music?

Although I’d learnt a number of instruments, I first got really passionate about taking music further when I discovered contemporary music and the unique thrill of composition. During my undergrad years at the University of Sydney (while studying a number of other things including Mathematics and Philosophy), my energies became increasingly focussed on performance, playing the works of composers of today (and particularly those I knew as fellow students). Although a lot has changed, this remains the focus of my work, and it’s inspiring to work at the cutting edge of the art form.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

I had a series of great teachers from my late teens onwards: my teacher in Australia, Ransford Elsley, had some eccentric ideas about technique, including that all the tools for playing Messiaen or Xenakis could be found in Chopin’s Etudes. Rolf Hind, my teacher at the Royal Academy of Music in London, taught me a lot about the art of interpretation, but also about being an artist – he has a holistic approach to his work and life (including yoga, meditation and veganism) which I’ve found inspirational. And he remains a great friend and mentor.

I’d also need to mention some of the greatest teachers of all have been my chamber music colleagues, especially the members of Ensemble Offspring, who I’ve not played with for 14 years, as well as duo partners like Thomas Adés, Brett Dean, Neil Heyde and Rolf Hind.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

As my career has grown, the biggest challenge has been juggling a busy schedule – not just learning the repertoire, but pitching to promoters, negotiating contracts, marketing, getting composers organised, fundraising, my research/lecturing position at Royal Holloway.… and also trying to eat, sleep and exercise and have a life outside of work.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

The big piano and multimedia tours I’ve done in the last few years: Dark Twin, Cyborg Pianist and now currently, Piano Ex Machina, are my proudest achievements – they’ve been major creative projects, often featuring 6-8 new works by leading composers (including most recently, Alexander Schubert) all innovating new ways of combining the piano with new technologies, and they’ll all really connected with audiences internationally and played to festivals and series like Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Klang Festival (Copenhagen), Transistor Festival (Mälmo), Podium Festival (Esslingen) Melbourne Festival and Unerhörte Musik Berlin.

And I remain very proud of the double concerto I performed, alongside Rolf Hind, by Beat Furrer (under his baton) with the London Sinfonietta at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – a career highlight.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

The works I think work best for me are often tailored to me by composers – a lot of recent works by Alexander Schubert, Adam de la Cour, Neil Luck, Claudia Molitor, Christopher Fox, Scott McLaughlin and others have all worked with my love of extended techniques, of integrating theatre into performance, interaction with film and interactive media, wild changes in tone (from incredibly intense to light and comic) as well as referencing my abilities to play a lot of key works from the canon.

I still enjoy playing a lot of those major canonical works, particularly 20th century works like Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, Bartok’s 2nd piano concerto, John Adams’ Phrygian Gates, John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes and lots of Messiaen. And I also feel an affinity for Baroque and pre-Baroque repertoire, which I’ve started including in mixed programmes – a recent one combining British contemporary works, with 17th-18th century composers like John Bull, William Byrd, Orland Gibbons and Henry Purcell worked particularly well.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I’ll be talking to dozens of composers at any point, with each collaboration often taking years of gestation – at the moment the general theme has been screen cultures including film, TV, video games and the internet, and it often becomes clear as I talk to them how these programmes will emerge (and how they might be combined with existing works with similar concerns).

Other programmes (like my Ancient/Modern British keyboard music project) start with a clear vision and quite a few works already arranged, and then it’s about commissioning to complete the missing pieces of the project. And as someone who performs a lot of chamber and ensemble repertoire, a lot of programming choices are made collaboratively, and there’s often a lot of different factors to juggle.

One thing that’s important in all these decisions is to consider how diverse the composers represented on these programmes are. I don’t like quotas, but if you’re only programming music written by cis white men, you need to consider whether you’re exacerbating structural inequalities in the industry, and also missing out on a lot of great music.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Melbourne Recital Centre has the wonderful Salon space. Excellent acoustic (that can be adjusted to a very fine degree), excellent choice of pianos, excellent tech (including the best projector I’ve ever used), and excellent staff. And of course, the audience is a big part of it, and I’ve had a great reception from sell-out crowds there over many years.

Who are your favourite musicians?

There are so many inspirational performers I know in new music: pianists Rolf Hind, Vicky Chow, Adam Tendler, Philip Thomas, Sebastian Berweck, Siwan Rhys, Eliza McCarthy; vocalists Lore Lixenberg, Jane Sheldon, Jessica Azsodi; string players Mira Benjamin, Brett Dean, Anton Lukoszevieze; wind players Peter Knight, Heather Roche, Carla Rees; and percussionists Claire Edwardes, Eugene Ughetti, Joby Burgess and Colin Currie.

In terms of pianists specifically, there are so many great ones who are a constant source of inspiration, like Glenn Gould, Alfred Cortot, Ignaz Friedman, Leon Fleisher, Sviatoslav Richter, Vladamir Sofronitsky, Samson François as well as iconic new music pianists like

David Tudor, Roger Woodward and Yuji Takahashi, and improvisers like Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

And when it comes to composers it’s a long list of favourites, and if they’re on my list I try to meet them and find a way to collaborate.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Playing John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes at Melbourne Festival, and becoming completely hypnotised by the prepared piano sounds – you only really hear this piece when you’ve got all the preparations exactly right, and in a really great acoustic space, so it was a disembodied experience, like I was playing the work and enjoying listening as a member of the audience at the same time.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Success, in any of the arts, is a really problematic concept. Is it about living from your work? Or about reaching a wide range of audiences? Or about being respected by your peers? Or the impact you have on other musicians (including the next generations)? Or about the quality and originality of the work itself? It’s all these things to some degree, and these are all questions that I keep in mind when planning projects.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

1. Find your métier – find something new and unique to bring to the art form, and make that your focus.

2. Don’t be afraid of failure – it’s more important to take risks than always stay in your comfort zone.

3. Go to concerts – it’s how you learn about music, and how you meet musicians and develop your networks.

4. Always act professionally – learn your part, turn up on time, answer emails promptly, meet deadlines, contribute your share to collaborative work, be honest when there’s a problem, pay anyone working for you on time, and behave with respect and decency to your colleagues.

5. Have a life outside of music – study other subjects (or like me, other degrees). Take an interest in visual art, cinema, theatre, literature, science, anything else! Be politically aware and active. And have some friends who aren’t musicians.

What is your most treasured possession?

My cameras. I love cinema and photography in all its forms, and love taking photos of friends and colleagues, and of the behind the scenes work of musicians. There’s something quite magical about capturing a specific and fleeting moment in time, and distilling its essence, which could be considered the flipside to a musical performance: existing across time, and yet ephemeral.

Pianist, Zubin Kanga has performed at many international festivals including the BBC Proms, Cheltenham Festival, London Contemporary Music Festival, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (UK), ISCM World New Music Days, Metropolis New Music Festival, Melbourne Festival, Sydney Festival, Four Winds Festival, BIFEM (Australia), IRCAM Manifeste Festival, Mars aux Musées Festival (France) and Borealis Festival (Norway) as well as appearing as soloist with the London Sinfonietta and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He will be Artistic Associate at the 2018 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music. 

Zubin’s international touring projects focus around the extension of the pianist through interactive multimedia, including live and fixed electronics, film, live video, motion sensors, and AI. He has collaborated with many of the world’s leading composers including Thomas Adès, Michael Finnissy, George Benjamin, Steve Reich, Beat Furrer, Liza Lim, Michel van der Aa and Stefan Prins and premiered more than 80 new works. He is a member of Ensemble Offspring, one of Australia’s leading contemporary music ensembles, as well as the Marysas Trio, which performs across Europe. He has also performed with Ensemble Plus-Minus, Endymion Ensemble, Halcyon, Synergy Percussion, and the Kreutzer Quartet, as well as performing piano duos with Rolf Hind and Thomas Adès.

Zubin has won many prizes including the 2012 Art Music Award for ‘Performance of the Year (NSW)’, the Michael Kieran Harvey Scholarship, the ABC Limelight Award for Best Newcomer and the Greta Parkinson Prize from the Royal Academy of Music. His recent recordings include Not Music Yet for Hospital Recordings, Orfordness for Metier (UK) and Piano Inside Out for Move Records, which was nominated for Best Classical Album at the Australian Independent Music Awards.

A Masters and PhD graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, London, Zubin recently finished a post as post-doctoral researcher at the University of Nice and IRCAM, Paris and is currently the Leverhulme Research Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London, as well as a Research Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, London and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.  He was the convenor of the Inventing Gestures symposium in the 2015 Manifeste Festival at IRCAM and was the guest editor for a special issue on new interactive technologies in music for Contemporary Music Review.


Artist photo by Richard Hedger

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and make it your career?

I don’t think it was the piano specifically that attracted me as a child – I just always loved music and wanted to be involved in it in any way possible. I don’t come from a musical family, and my parents didn’t really know any classical music till I came along (I was brought up on Motown, Bob Marley, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Queen…), but they’re both creative people and incredibly supportive, and recognised that I had an absolute fascination for music of all sorts from a very young age. The first ‘classical’ record I remember my parents buying for me was of David Munrow playing Mediaeval and Renaissance wind instruments, which I became quite obsessed with. As a child, I took up the recorder, piano, cello and oboe, but what I really wanted to be more than anything else was a composer. I’m not quite sure how I ended up being a pianist – I don’t remember a conscious moment of decision, and always feel the instrument chose me rather than the other way round. As for making music my career, I just never considered doing anything else, though for a long time I hadn’t the faintest idea how a career actually worked.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?

My first piano teacher, Hilary Morrison, was a schoolteacher who lived round the corner – she’d never taught the piano before, but it’s only with hindsight that I realise what a brilliant start she gave me. I wish she was still alive so I could thank her properly. I was incredibly fortunate to study from the age of nine onwards with Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, who taught me pretty much everything I know about playing the piano, pushed me to achieve things I thought I couldn’t, and inspired me to work much harder than I ever would have done otherwise. I owe her so much, and my life would have been very different without her. Many of the principles of chamber music playing which I hold dear were instilled in me by the wise guidance of Michael Freyhan at Pro Corda when I was in my teens. He showed me how to really listen – to myself and to others. There are so many other wonderful people who have had a huge influence on me, from primary school music teachers to chamber music colleagues; I can’t list them all for fear of leaving someone out, but I hope they know who they are!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

In the earlier stages of my career I had to fight hard to avoid being pigeon-holed: I played a lot of chamber music from a young age, because I’ve always loved it, and discovered at a certain point that once people see you in that box, they often assume you’re not really a ‘solo’ pianist, despite the fact that I’ve always had a busy schedule of concertos and solo recitals. Such assumptions strike me as very odd, because it seems only natural to me that a pianist exploring Beethoven (for example) should want to play his solo sonatas, duo sonatas, trios, concertos, songs and so on – everything feeds into everything else. I’ve always thrived off the variety and balance of repertoire, and I’d hate to close the door on any part of it. And I already feel that being a pianist is more of a specialism than I’d originally intended!

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

I’m not sure that pride is a feeling I particularly associate with, but sometimes there are wonderful, indefinable moments in certain performances (I wish they happened more often!) where everything comes together in a magical way and it feels like you’re flying, as if anything’s possible. I have so many reservations about the process of recording (not least that I miss the audience hugely when I’m in a studio), and I find it very difficult to listen to my own recordings, but I do feel a sense of achievement over my new recital disc, In Dance and Song, which contains a very personal selection of works and reflects some of my wide-ranging passions. Also, the one time I dared to listen to it, I quite enjoyed the disc of the Chausson Concert which I recorded two years ago with Jennifer Pike and the Doric Quartet – it’s a wonderful piece, full of soaring melodies (and a ridiculous number of notes for the pianist).

Which particular works do you think you play best?

Not sure if I can answer that, but I’ve always adored melodies and vocal music, so I find pieces with a lyrical bent particularly gratifying to play.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

Pianists are spoiled for choice when it comes to repertoire, and it would take so many lifetimes to explore all the great works – as time goes on, I realise more and more that it’s a waste of time for a pianist to play anything that doesn’t really grab them. I enjoy hugely (though it sometimes requires an exhausting amount of thought) coming up with interesting and (I hope) cohesive programmes. Often, however, the ones I’m most pleased with are then scuppered by promoters saying e.g., “[A much more famous pianist] is already playing most of those pieces in his recital this season” or “Can you include a barcarolle by Snosveldt to mark his 186th anniversary year?” or (and this is a genuine quote, from a much missed promoter in Ireland) “Fauré spells death at the box office”.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Among many others, I love the Holywell Room in Oxford, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, and the Wigmore Hall. Playing at the BBC Proms is always a huge thrill. The Spoleto Festival in Italy when Gian Carlo Menotti was around was unforgettable.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?

To play – far too many to list, but here are some which I find particularly enjoyable and/or rewarding to play: Beethoven concertos (including the Triple), Brahms piano quartets, Chopin solo works, Dvorak chamber music, Fauré (lots), Grieg miniatures, Mendelssohn chamber music, Messiaen Quartet for the End of Time, Mozart (all!), Rachmaninov concertos, Ravel (lots), Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, Schubert and Schumann Lieder, Richard Strauss’ early chamber music, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio. And – stretching back to my schooldays and early jobs in hotel bars – I’ve always loved playing Gershwin, Kern, Cole Porter and the Great American Songbook. To listen to – this changes a lot, but perhaps most consistently Bach, Mozart operas, Sondheim musicals, Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook recordings.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Along with the great composers whose music I play (of whom Mozart has perhaps brought me most joy of all) and the wonderful colleagues I have the pleasure of working with (not least my dear friends in the Aronowitz Ensemble), here is a very incomplete list featuring some musicians who have greatly inspired me in some way or other, which I’ve restricted to those I don’t know personally: Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Emil Gilels, Fritz Kreisler, Dinu Lipatti, Radu Lupu, Joni Mitchell, Ginette Neveu, Luciano Pavarotti, Oscar Peterson, Lucia Popp, Nina Simone.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

As a listener – a concert in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge in 1999, part of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage; most specifically the final aria of BWV 159, one of the most heart-stopping moments of my life so far. As a performer – I think I have a pretty good memory, so I remember most of my concert experiences, both good and bad, quite vividly. Two experiences which I will always associate with a wonderfully heady mixture of fear and immense joy both involved Robin Ticciati and the SCO – touring with the Ligeti Concerto in 2010 (the most fiendishly difficult piece I’ve ever played, but also utterly enthralling), and playing my first Brahms 2 at three days’ notice when Pierre-Laurent Aimard cancelled. (That wasn’t actually my most last-minute stand-in: I once got off a plane at 4.30pm and, when I turned on my phone, there was a message asking if I’d play the Grieg Concerto at 7.30pm that evening. The rehearsal had already taken place, but I jumped in a taxi and somehow got through the performance unscathed, and with a curious sense of liberation on stage!) I will always remember with huge fondness my appearance in the BBC Young Musician final back in 2000, under the starry ceiling of the Bridgewater Hall. It was a big, thrilling moment for a rather naïve boy who’d always felt something of an outsider and who’d never experienced anything remotely on that scale. It also opened a lot of doors. On a non-pianistic note – and perhaps reflecting my early desires to be an actor as well as a musician – I enormously enjoyed appearing as reciter in Walton’s Façade a few years back at Aberystwyth Musicfest (where I’ve also played the swanee whistle in drag).

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

First and foremost, that music is the most important thing, and if you love it so much that you can’t be without it, then immerse yourself and go for it – but try to be flexible and open-minded about your exact path. Avoid cynics and negative people – there are a lot of them around, such as the ones who like to hover after a concert and say helpful things like, “It’s a terrible struggle, the music business, isn’t it? Must be very difficult for you.” Of course there are tricky times, but no money in the world could persuade me to switch to another profession.

Regarding education, I personally think it’s important to remember there are valid alternatives to the music school/music college route. All my schooling took place in the comprehensive system, and my first degree was at university. It dismays me when people express surprise (which they really do) that some of us in the classical music profession hail from a regular state school background; I’m also immeasurably saddened that, if music in state schools continues to be eroded and marginalised by the government, before long there may not be many aspiring musicians to pass such advice to.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?

Doing pretty much what I am now. Though I’d like to have written a hit West End musical in the interim. And to have successfully campaigned (without it having taken up too much time) for the provision of free music education for all children, which would incidentally have enabled world peace.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

To see an aardvark, moose, tapir or dugong in its natural habitat.

What is your present state of mind?


Tom Poster is internationally recognised as a pianist of outstanding artistry and versatility, equally in demand as soloist and chamber musician across an unusually extensive repertoire. He has been described as “a marvel, [who] can play anything in any style” (The Herald), “an unparalleled sound-magician” (General-Anzeiger), a “young lion” (The Guardian), and as possessing “great authority and astounding virtuosity” (Est Républicain). He won First Prize at the Scottish International Piano Competition 2007, the Ensemble Prize at the Honens International Piano Competition 2009, and the keyboard sections of the Royal Over-Seas League and BBC Young Musician of the Year Competitions in 2000. 

Tom’s full biography and diary is available on his website: www.tomposter.co.uk

Interview date: 10th March 2014

Bobby Chen (photo credit: Sussie Ahlburg)

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career? 

When I was 7 years old, my parents moved into a new neighbourhood in a satellite town in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia, and I heard some piano sounds coming from just across the street. I went over, met the lady, had a few informal lessons with her, and felt fascinated by the piano. I never had proper lessons with her, but the fascination remained.

Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career? 

Firstly, my parents, who had introduced me to the gift of the music and piano. Second, my first teacher in Kota Kinabalu, who played me a recording by Glenn Gould, and travelled overseas with me for extra tuition. Third, to Geoffrey Smith, who was the Regional Consultant in charge of South-East Asia for the ABRSM in 1991, he suggested that I audition for the Yehudi Menuhin School, and guided me through that process. Lastly, my teachers in the UK, who were Ruth Nye, Hamish Milne and Nikolai Demidenko.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far? 

I can find it easy to lose focus, and to not push myself 100%. This can make me fall away slightly in my pursuit when trying to understand certain works and ways of playing.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of? 

I remembered very fondly: a) touring Britain with Lord Menuhin and the Beethoven Triple Concerto in 1996; b) making my Italian debut recital at the Fazioli Hall in Sacile, Italy in 2011; c) performing at my 4th solo recital at the Wigmore 2011; d) recording an all Prokofiev solo disc for SOMM Recordings in 2009; e) as one of the pianists in the first ever complete Beethoven sonata cycle for South-East Asia in 2008. Also, I am also very proud to have organize my first winter piano course, taking place at the Yehudi Menuhin School. So these were some of my favourite moments!

Which particular works do you think you play best? 

Recently, I have been working a lot on Prokofiev’s piano music. Also on Debussy and Schubert.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season? 

If I play Prokofiev in season 2012-13, it is because in 2010, I started to find his music increasingly fascinating. I find it lovely to explore works in this way.

Tell us a little more about your duo partnership with Douglas Finch. What are the particular pleasures and pitfalls of playing duo repertoire? 

I got to know Douglas many years ago, when I started to play his works. In 2010, I invited him to come to my winter piano course at the Yehudi Menuhin School. After performing a complete Liszt programme with Leslie Howard at the Wigmore Hall in 2011, Douglas and I struck up a piano duo partnership.

With 4-hands, the entire keyboard register can be used, the instrument transformed into this amazing orchestra, with exciting possibilities! One major pitfall is that any minute lapses of concentration from one player can be glaringly exposed!

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why? 

I love playing at the Wigmore Hall, the intimacy there is unique. Also Fazioli Hall, so state-of-the-art, and a gorgeous piano there.

Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to? 

This season, performing Prokofiev’s and Debussy’s piano music. I love listening to Fischer-Dieskau singing Bach. I love watching ballet at the Royal Opera House.

Who are your favourite musicians? 

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Ferruccio Busoni.

What is your most memorable concert experience? 

Bernard Haitink and the Berlin Philharmonic live at the Proms in 2011. Incredibly awe-inspiring.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

To stay true to your art, and to find all sorts of ways in order to fulfil your musical/artistic ambitions.

What are you working on at the moment? 

I am currently learning the Sonatine by Ravel, Impromptus Op.142 by Schubert, and revising the 4 Chopin Ballades.

Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time? 

Performing music in public.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

Spending time with family and good friends.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My teapot.

What do you enjoy doing most? 

I love watching films in cinema, going to concerts and chatting with interesting people.

What is your present state of mind? 

Fairly good, I think! Although a bit Prokofiev-ian.

Bobby Chen performs duo piano works with Douglas Finch as part of the Bristol International Piano Duo Festival, 7 March 2014, at the University of Bristol. Full details here

Described by International Piano Magazine as: “…an armour-clad player of complete technique,  a thinking musician, a natural Romantic. Young bloods come no better”, Malaysian pianist Bobby Chen studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal Academy of Music with Hamish Milne and Ruth Nye. He burst on the scene in 1996 with a sensational season of concerts, which included a British tour with Lord Menuhin in a performance of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto and a recital at the Royal Festival Hall as part of the South Bank Prokofiev Festival.

Chen has performed under conductors Lan Shui, Mathias Bamert, Maximiliano Valdés, Sir Neville Marriner, Pierre-André Valade, Giancarlo Guerrero and with several orchestras including the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, Warsaw Sinfonia, Singapore Symphony Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta.

In recent seasons, venues Chen has played in included Beijing’s Forbidden City Concert Hall, Dublin’s National Concert Hall, Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall, Italy’s Fazioli Hall, Holland’s Hermitage Amsterdam, Poland’s Antonin Palace, Hong Kong’s City Hall, Malaysia’s Petronas Twin Towers, UK’s Purcell Room, Bridgewater Hall, Royal Concert Hall, Cadogan Hall, and Wigmore Hall. He has performed under the special auspices of Australia’s Southern Highlands International Piano Competition, at Brazil’s Musica Nova Contemporary Music Festival, Sweden’s Lidköping Music Festival, Ireland’s Music for Wexford and Wicklow Arts Festival, UK’s Worcester Three Choirs Festival, Guildford International Music Festival and Marlborough College Summer School. He has recorded six commercial discs, and broadcast live for UK’s Classic Fm, Hong Kong’s Radio Television Hong Kong and USA’s Pianoforte Chicago.

Chen was awarded ‘The BrandLaureate – Country Branding Award’ from The Asia Pacific Brands Foundation, appointed a tutor at UK’s Chethams International Piano Summer School, elected an Associate of London’s Royal Academy of Music (ARAM), and runs the Overseas Malaysian Winter Piano Academy (OMWPA) at the Yehudi Menuhin School.