Accepted into the exclusive Yehudi Menuhin School in Britain at the age of 11, a Malaysian-born concert pianist wants to provide gifted Malaysian children a similar opportunity via a special programme.
WHEN Bobby Chen was first sent for piano lessons at the age of seven, his mother told him it was because young boys should take up piano to learn to sit still. Validity of the reason aside, it was the best decision that his parents made.
Sandakan-born Chen took to the keys with great ease, breezed through his exams and completed Grade Eight within an amazing three and a half years.
“I liked it from the start. My parents never forced me to learn but they also stressed that I studied hard too,” said Chen, 31, who is currently in Kuala Lumpur to give a series of recitals this month.
His parents knew he loved music but did not realise the extent of his potential until a year or two later.
When Chen was about nine, an examiner from the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) in London heard him play and was struck by his raw talent.
The examiner then spoke of him to the ABRSM South-East Asian regional head, the late Geoffrey Smith, who suggested to Chen’s father that he send his son to the prestigious Yehudi Menuhin School of Music in Britain. At that time, his father, a businessman in the construction sector, thought nine was too young to send his child so far away.
However, Smith then made a thought-provoking statement: “The boy does not belong to you, he belongs to the world.”
A few years later, when Chen was 11, his parents made the major decision to nurture their son’s talent. They sold off most of their possessions in Kota Kinabalu where they were living, and together with Chen’s brother and grandmother, packed up and moved to Britain.
“I remembered my parents bought an old, beat-up car and rented a flat north of London,” said the soft-spoken Chen, whose mother was a former kindergarten principal.
“I was accepted into the Yehudi Menuhin School while my younger brother also attended school,” added Chen, whose brother currently heads software and technical projects based in Penang.
However, four months down the road, his parents ran out of money and had to return to Malaysia.
The young Chen stayed on alone and continued with his lessons with funding from the school and also various organisations. He studied alongside six other children his age, with whom he still keeps in touch till today.
Although he missed his family, his days were filled with stimulating classes and activities that Chen really enjoyed.
“I missed home a lot but on the other hand, I was happy because the lessons were amazing. We also had great fun going for trips to London and playing at and attending concerts in Austria, Spain and Luxembourg.”
The school only took in about 50 children with exceptional talent from all over the world who were taught and looked after by almost an equal number of teachers.
“It was the best music school in the world, and still is today,” said Chen of his alma mater with pride.
“Our schedules were intensive but the subject matter was what we were really interested in. The best thing was that we had great teachers who were very encouraging and inspiring, including Lord Menuhin himself,” he said, referring to the late, renowned violinist and founder of the school.
“The teachers and staff were also very kind to us, as we were there without our parents.”
Chen studied mainly under Australian teacher Ruth Nye and spent six years at the school, where besides music, he also did his A levels and learnt French.
He continued to excel in his music and at 16, was selected with two other students to tour Britain with Lord Menuhin, performing Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.
“It was a real priviledge to tour with him,” he recalled.
Chen then went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London for four years, graduating with First Class Honours. Within that period, he received various scholarships and also won eight awards including Best Final Recital, Best Overseas Pupil and Best Royal Overseas League.
After the Academy, Chen studied privately under Scottish Prof Hamish Milne for two years. Since then, he has performed as a soloist under conductors Mathias Bamert, Maximiliano Valdes, Lan Shui, Sir Neville Marriner, Lord Menuhin and Pierre-Andre Valade.
Lord Menuhin once described Chen’s playing as “truly beautiful”.
Chen has also performed concerti with the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London Sinfonietta, Warsaw Sinfonia, Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra.
He has appeared as a soloist three times at London’s Wigmore Hall and performed at Italy’s Fazioli Hall, Beijing’s Forbidden City Concert Hall, Dublin’s National Concert Hall, London’s Cadogan Hall and Purcell Room, Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall and Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Philharmonic Hall.
Festival appearances include Britain’s South Bank Prokofiev Festival and Worcester Three Choirs Festival, Sao Paulo’s Musica Nova Contemporary Music Festival and Sweden’s Lidkِping Music Festival.
Today the medium-built pianist, who exudes boyish charm, practises four to five hours a day. His favourite composers are Schubert, Bach and Beethoven.
Chen, who has six commercial recordings, include two solo CDs, believes that music has always been about performing and composing.
Asked what his goal is in the next five years, he said plainly: “To keep playing and to help people appreciate that music is worth exploring.”
He also has another quest – to promote the Overseas Piano Academy for Malaysian Musical Proteges, a project he is spearheading.
“The idea is to open young Malaysians to the possibility of enriching their existing musical training, and use ethnic Malaysian sounds to create new works. The classes will take place at the Yehudi Menuhin School in Britain and led by active professionals and seasoned professors,” he said, adding that the students can share their experiences upon their return to Malaysia.
“I was very fortunate to have been a pupil of the distinguished Ruth Nye and gained invaluable musical knowledge from distinguished pianists such as Alexander Satz and Dmitri Bashkirov.
“I learnt music technique and interpretation skills from various professors, who also encouraged a great awareness, sensitivity and intelligence in me,” he said.
The 10-day programme, to be held Dec 13 to 23 this year, is open to 20 to 22 talented piano students who will be selected through an audition process.
“There is a lot of talent in Malaysia and the Academy will help them progress further,” said Chen.
Successful applicants for the course will get the chance to have one-to-one tuition from top-notch teachers, learn about improvisation and chamber music, both of which are not so common in Malaysia.
“They will be able to absorb music in a top quality learning environment and also go to London to attend at least one performance in a world-class international venue,” said Chen.
The fee for the course is £1,000 (RM4,850) for full board and lessons (excluding flight). However, Chen is trying to get some sponsorship for the course. Proceeds from his two recitals in June will also go towards the course.
For more information about the Yehudi Menuhin Music Course, e-mail Chen (refer to fact file) or call him at 012-414 3739 (in June).
Chen will be giving two recitals at Hotel Equatorial, KL, on June 12 and 24 at 7.30pm. For reservations, call 03-2161 7777 ext 8219 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fact File Name: Bobby Chen Age: 31 Hometown: Kota Kinabalu Education: SJKC Lok Yuk, Kota Kinabalu; Yehudi Menuhin School, Surrey, Britain; Royal Academy of Music, Britain Occupation: Concert pianist Current base: London Years abroad: 20 E-mail: email@example.com
Name: Bobby Chen
Hometown: Kota Kinabalu
Education: SJKC Lok Yuk, Kota Kinabalu; Yehudi Menuhin School, Surrey, Britain; Royal Academy of Music, Britain
Occupation: Concert pianist
Current base: London
Years abroad: 20