At 15, Phang Lee Jae gave a public performance which made a huge impact on him.
“It was my performance in London at the prestigious St Martin-in-the-Fields in May 2009 after winning a prize at the 13th EPTA (UK) Piano Competition. That was truly a very special occasion for me, ” he said.
Then in 2015, he won the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) Concerto Auditions and was selected to perform Mendelssohn’s 2nd Piano Concerto with the RNCM Chamber Orchestra and Scottish conductor Mark Heron in Manchester, England.
“I was delighted by the extremely positive response from the audience when I finished playing. They were applauding, cheering and I heard shouts of bravo too!” he recalled.
Today, the 25-year-old Phang is a seasoned concert pianist. He was named Most Outstanding Young Pianist of the Year at the Mid-Somerset Competitive Festival in 2009 held in Bath, England.
During his studies, he won the RNCM Mark Ray Recital Prize (2017), the RNCM Helen Porthouse Paganini Prize with violinist Oliver Baily (2015), and was also awarded the Hilda Anderson Dean Award (for solo work) and Musicales Prize (for Trio Lazuli), both in July 2015.
He also won the Audience Prize and the “1st Beethoven Performance Award of the Beethoven Piano Society of Europe & Beethoven in Altaussee Festival 2016” prize.
In January 2014, he earned a Guinness World Record with 15 other musicians for the largest number of people playing the same piano simultaneously.
Phang said the event took place as part of the RNCM’s £3mil (RM16.2mil) campaign to transform its 40-year-old concert hall into a state-of-the-art venue.
“It was quite an extraordinary experience. I’ve never felt so cramped up at the piano. Anyone hoping to beat the record we set that day would either have to use dwarfs or hang pianists upside down from the ceiling!” he quipped, adding that some of them were sitting on the floor and reading off stands on either side of the piano.
(Note: In 2018, a new world record was set by 21 students and teachers in The Netherlands.)
An early start
Phang comes from a music-loving family, so it was a natural progression for him to choose a career in music.
“My younger sister and I play the violin and piano but I am the only professional musician in my family, ” said Phang, who started playing piano at the age of four. He also learnt to play the violin and clarinet.
“At the age of five, I realised that I could pick up complex piano music by ear. A year later, I obtained a distinction for my Grade 5 practical piano exam, ” he said.
Phang’s early years of education was spent at SJK (C) Damansara and SJK (C) Puay Chai 2, both in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, and Sri Cempaka, Cheras, Kuala Lumpur (from Year 5 to the middle of Form 1).
When he was 13, the UK Department for Education’s Music and Dance Scheme gave him a full scholarship to study at the Wells Cathedral School in Somerset, England. Wells is a co-educational independent school and one of five specialist musical schools in Britain.
For five years (2007-2012), he was taught as a specialist pianist by John Byrne, a Professor of Piano at the Royal College of Music in London.
Phang then continued his studies at the RNCM in Manchester for another five years until 2017, graduating with a Bachelor of Music and a Masters in Music with Distinction. His studies at the RNCM were fully covered by various scholarships and bursaries. He was later admitted as a Fellow of the Royal Schools of Music with Distinction.
Phang’s idols include Martha Argerich (Argentine classical concert pianist), Murray Perahia (American pianist and conductor), Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (French classical pianist) and Stephen Hough (British-born classical pianist, composer and writer who became an Australian citizen in 2005).
“Recently, I had the good fortune of finally hearing Evgeny Kissin (Russian classical pianist) live in Munich. He was a recurring theme in my musical childhood, ” Phang enthused.
“I also admire Daniil Trifonov (Russian pianist and composer), who played the most amazing Second Piano Concerto by Chopin at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester.”
Based in Malaysia, Phang travels to where his performances and collaborations take him.
“I have the best of both worlds; I perform overseas and I bring my expertise home when I teach. I also believe that if you’re a concert pianist, you also ought to be a chamber musician. There is much to enjoy whether or not you are performing alone on stage or with other colleagues in a chamber music group or orchestra, ” he said.
In addition to performing, Phang also gives private piano lessons. “My goal is to see my students develop into skilled and fulfilled musicians, ” he said, adding that someday, he hopes to invite world-class musicians to Malaysia to perform and teach.
“That, I feel, would be of enormous benefit to Malaysians.”
Phang also lauded music’s therapeutic values.
“It definitely produces good effects in an individual’s body and mind; for example, one can get the attention of a crying child simply by playing a little tune to him or her, ” he said.
He also sees music as “a way to develop oneself into more wholesome human beings”, and something that “teaches empathy and has the ability to connect people”.
“Music offers us a glimpse into the thoughts and experiences of people from other cultures and historical periods. It communicates to us their feelings, beliefs and much, much more, ” he enthused.