Saturday, 3 May 2014

Harpist Bryan Lee pulls the strings perfectly

Singaporean-trained harpist Bryan Lee strums the right notes with a homecoming tour.

AMONG classical instruments, few are as iconic as the harp. It was this that drew Bryan Lee to the instrument as his medium of choice to explore classical music. The 21-year-old had started training on piano at age four, then dabbled with violin before finding his true calling.

“I wanted something special and the harp really stood out and called to me. I’m a Christian, and harp is a very historic biblical instrument, like with King David and his harp,” says Lee, who now plays a hulking 40kg, Lyon & Healy Style 23 Natural concert harp.

Harpist Bryan Lee will be marking his return to Malaysia's music scene with a solo tour in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, after graduating from National University of Singapore.
Meaningful milestone: Harpist Bryan Lee will be marking his return to Malaysia’s music scene with a solo tour in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, after graduating from National University of Singapore

Lee’s debut solo tour was originally meant to be a single performance at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, in the National University of Singapore (NUS), where he is completing his Bachelors Degree (Hons) of music majoring in harp performance.

“It’s tradition for a graduating music student to give a full solo recital to demonstrate what we have learnt over the years.

“But I come from KL, so some friends and fellow musicians insisted I come home, too,” shares the Singapore-based Lee, over an online interview.

Though just graduating, Lee already has an impressive resume having played with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Penang Philharmonic Orchestra, the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Orchestra, and many others.

The friendships he had forged performing all over the region worked in his favour, leading to his second show of his tour in Penang with the help of the Penang Symphonic Society.

Paying it forward, Lee’s performance at Chapel Mill, St Jo’s, Gurney Paragon, George Town tonight is in support of the Penang Hospice Centre.

The final stop in Lee’s tour brings the Kajang, Selangor-native back to town, with a May 24 show at the White Box, Publika in Kuala Lumpur. The gallery space is simultaneously hosting the works of muralist Cheong Lai Tong, the artist behind the mural outside the National Museum of Kuala Lumpur and the Sultan of Selangor’s Palace.

“I chose the White Box because I wanted a more intimate setting. Plus I’m also very excited about a collaboration between visual and sonic arts, as it’s another area I’m trying to explore,” revealed Lee.

“Actually Malaysia shows usually develop me more. In Singapore, there is usually no lack of funds or musicians, but in Malaysia we always have interesting situations, which results in creative solutions.”

The programme for all Lee’s shows will be the same: starting with Johann Sebastien Bach’s Suite (BWV 996), Jean-Michel Damase’s Sicilienne Variée, Edward Benjamin Britten’s Suite For Harp Op. 83, then a piece composed specially for Lee, Dr Kawai Shiu’s Melepaskan and ending with Bedrich Smetana’s Die Moldau.

Lee explains the programme’s format is to warm up with a Baroque-era piece, in this case a Bach suite, then move on to a showpiece which features a lot of big chords, arpeggios and glissandos, to show off player’s technique.

The third – Britten’s suite written for the famous Welsh harp soloist, Osian Gwynn Ellis – brings a taste of 20th century music, which is slightly discordant and less tonal, and plays around with special effects like harmonics, stopped strings, pres-de-la-table (playing low on the strings).

Lee reveals that the tour’s namesake Melepaskan (Unleash), got its title from its composer Dr Kawai, a Hong Kong-born professor at the NUS, who has a tradition of naming his compositions in the language of the person he wrote it for.

“It was not composed to be harp music, rather it is composed as music to be played for the harp.

“The composer told me that his method of composition was to film himself playing an imaginary harp. He wanted big wild gestures, and he wrote notes according to his gestures,” says Lee, amusedly.

To let the audience to better understand the piece, which makes its debut at Lee’s tour, the harpist has invited Dr Kawai to take part in an interview session during the shows’ intermission.

Lee admits that though the programme was assembled primarily to show his capabilities rather than for sentimental value, he was inspired to choose Smetana’s Die Moldau after watching famed French harpist Xavier de Maistre perform it solo at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in Kuala Lumpur.

“I really am not the type of person who goes, ‘wow that’s so good I’m going to play this piece like how he plays’, because that’s just imitating. But it did inspire me to play the same piece, in my own style,” says Lee.

Moving forward, Lee is considering releasing an album though undecided on whether to go with a classical, easy listening or modern style. He is also determined to raise awareness about the harp in Malaysia, and do his part in teaching the next generation of harpists.

Bryan Lee’s Unleashed harp performance is on at Chapel Mill, St Jo’s, Gurney Paragon, Gurney Drive, George Town, tonight, at 8pm. Later this month, Lee plays at the White Box, MAP, Publika, Solaris Dutamas in Kuala Lumpur on May 24; showtime is 8pm. Tickets for both shows are RM30, and RM15 for students. Tickets are available at or by calling 016-663 0730 or 016-445 1924. More details at and

Tags / Keywords: Entertainment , Music , Harp , Entertainment


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