Who or what inspired you to take up the piano and make it your career?
In my teens, I had ambitions to be a composer, but gradually my creative energies were transferred into performing. My piano teacher through this period, Ransford Elsley was an inspiring advocate for contemporary music as well as being an extraordinary teacher who completely transformed my playing within a year of lessons. That rapid development continued through my undergraduate years, and at a certain point I decided that I could make a bigger contribution to music as a performer than as a composer and have been an active collaborator with composers ever since.
Who or what were the most important influences on your musical life and career?
Rolf Hind, who I studied with while a Masters student at the Royal Academy of Music, was, and still is, one of my biggest influences. His vast experience working with many great composers provided invaluable insights into the many styles and strands of contemporary music and he also provided me with the technical and practice tools to tackle the most demanding scores. It’s been particularly inspiring to perform alongside him, as duel soloists with the London Sinfonietta (playing Beat Furrer’s Nuun for two pianos and orchestra) and more recently, as a piano duo at his Occupy the Pianos festival. Professor Neil Heyde, my PhD supervisor at the Royal Academy of Music, has also been an important influence on how I think and write about music, and particularly about my relationships with composers.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
Management of time and workload is a constant challenge, as there are often mountains of new notes to learn as well as lots of organising to be done in setting up concerts and tours, editing CDs, writing funding grants, writing articles, meeting and having workshops with composers, marketing and PR, negotiating contracts… all this alongside studying, work and everything else in life. This is often not helped by composers who only give you the score a few days before the concert!
Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?
I’ve got four CDs being prepared for release, and I’m proud of all of these: “Not Music Yet” is a recording of a massive graphic score piece by Australian composer, David Young, “Piano: Inside/Out” is a recording of a range of new Australian works that feature extended techniques, “Orfordness” is a recording of solo and chamber music by British composer, David Gorton and “Chiaroscuro” is a recording with New York-based soprano, Jane Sheldon of works by Crumb, Saariaho, Schoenberg, as well as some newly commissioned works.
Of recent performances, I’m most proud of my performances alongside Thomas Adès and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra last year. Performing Tom’s Concerto Conciso under his baton was a great experience, but it was an even bigger thrill partnering him in his two-piano arrangements of two Studies for Player Piano by Conlon Nancarrow. They are fiendishly difficult, and made even trickier because they had to be synced up with accompanying video by Tal Rosner, so it was very satisfying to absolutely nail it.
Which particular works do you think you play best?
I particularly enjoy playing works that have either been written for me or where I’ve had input from the composer – if I had to point to any in particular, I’d say the several works by Michael Finnissy and George Benjamin are pieces I play well.
To pick a few other favourites: George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, Olivier Messiaen’s Canteyodjaya, Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit and Alban Berg’s Sonata No 1.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
My solo programs are often centred around new works from composers and might focus around a particular theme, a particular country, style or school of composition or around particular approaches to the piano. Sometimes there might be interesting connections or lineages to bring out in a program between older and newer works, and sometimes it’s good to give the audience a lot of variety. I’m also interested in working with filmmakers, actors and dancers on interdisciplinary collaborative projects.
You have a particular interest in contemporary piano music. What is the special appeal and challenges of this kind of repertoire for you?
As mentioned earlier, I’ve loved contemporary music from an early age and my appreciation for collaboration with composers has only increased through the course of my recent PhD on the subject. There is something very special about co-parenting a new work with a composer and creating a little bit of history when you eventually walk on stage to premiere it. There’s also so much variety in contemporary music, so many styles and approaches that it’s always refreshing, surprising and stimulating. It can also be challenging, especially when composers want to push the limits of what’s possible for a piano (or a pianist) to do – but that’s the kind of creative challenge I love and I think it’s particularly rewarding when you discover a truly innovative approach to the piano or set a new benchmark for virtuosity. Importantly, playing contemporary music also gives you new insights and tools for interpreting works of the canon.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
There are many venues with particularly aspects I really like. I enjoy the casual vibe of Café Oto, and I have also really enjoyed the atmosphere of performances at King’s Place as a performer and audience member. Like all pianists, I like playing on good instruments and I’ve played on excellent pianos in the Purcell Room and in the venues of the Royal Academy and Royal College. Playing big halls like Queen Elizabeth Hall or the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall are wonderful experiences that bring out your best as a performer. If I had to choose one: the Melbourne Recital Centre is a beautiful venue marrying excellent architecture, acoustics and pianos.
Favourite pieces to perform? Listen to?
I love playing or hearing Olivier Messiaen’s music – he was one of the first contemporary composers I really got hooked on and familiarity has not dulled my enthusiasm for the colours, rhythmic energy and ecstatic climaxes of his music. Learning the complete Vingt Regards surl’Enfant Jesus is one of my projects for the next few years.
Who are your favourite musicians?
I like a lot of older pianists like Glenn Gould, David Tudor, Artur Schnabel, Alfred Cortot, Leon Fleischer, Ignaz Friedman and Dinu Lipatti. Some favourite composers include Olivier Messiaen, Iannis Xenakis, Gerard Grisey, George Crumb, Jonathan Harvey, Michael Finnissy, Belá Bartók, Maurice Ravel and Frederic Chopin. I’m a big jazz fan (and former jazz saxophonist) and I never tire of hearing Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. And there are many musicians I admire from other musical cultures, such as the extraordinary shakuhachi player, Riley Lee.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
As a performer:
Performing Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (alongside musicians from Ensemble Offspring, Synergy Percussion and Eighth Blackbird) at the Sydney Opera House was an extraordinary experience. It’s a work that requires complete dedication without any ego and a true spirit of egalitarian music making. During the performance, I could sense the whole ensemble enter a state of ‘flow’ where we started playing and breathing like a single organism. It was the biggest audience I’ve played for live (around 3000) and when it finished, the whole crowd rose to their feet with a tremendous roar, giving Steve (and us) a rock star reception.
As an audience member:
It’s been great seeing some of the big contemporary works performed live that I would have probably never had the chance to experience in Australia: in particular Gerard Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques in 2008 and Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen in 2013 (both performed by the London Sinfonietta alongside musicians of the Royal Academy of Music). And as a pianist, I have to mention seeing one of my childhood idols, Keith Jarrett last year at the Festival Hall – I’ll never forget the luminosity and vibrant colours of his sound.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
I always tell young pianists that they should find their métier, that something special and unique that they can contribute to music. I also encourage them to try out all the skills and diverse repertoire available to a pianist rather than sticking to a very narrow conception of the canon. And of course, this includes encouraging them to consider playing, or creating, new repertoire.
What do you enjoy doing most?
Outside of music, I love movies, art galleries, books, cricket (as spectator) and the rare chances I get to go to the beach. But most of all, I love an evening of good food and good wine, shared with good friends.
London-based Australian pianist, Zubin Kanga has performed at the BBC Proms, London 2012, Aldeburgh (UK), Occupy the Pianos (UK), ISCM World New Music Days (Australia) and Borealis (Norway) Festivals as well as appearing as soloist with the London Sinfonietta and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He has commissioned dozens of new works, with a focus on the exploration of innovative approaches to the piano, and performed recitals across Australia, Europe and the USA. He is a member of Ensemble Offspring, one of Australia’s leading contemporary music ensembles, and has also performed with Halcyon, Synergy Percussion, Ensemble Plus-Minus, Endymion Ensemble and the Kreutzer Quartet, as well as performing piano duos with Rolf Hind and Thomas Adès.
In recent years, Zubin has been awarded the Michael Kieran Harvey Scholarship, the ABC Limelight Award for Best Newcomer and the NSW State Award (Performance of the Year) at the Australian Art Music Awards.
A Masters and PhD graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, London, he has collaborated with many of the world’s leading composers including Thomas Adès, Michael Finnissy, George Benjamin, Steve Reich, Beat Furrer, Howard Skempton, Liza Lim, Ross Edwards, Nigel Butterley and David Young.
(Photor: Bridget Elliot)