The Australian Youth Orchestra is a career-launching platform for young musicians: many participants go on to land impressive roles with major orchestras and ensembles across the country. Cellist Pei-Sian Ng took this educational opportunity one step further, using his AYO experiences to help build an international career.
The Sydney-born performer took part in AYO programs in the ’90s then quickly climbed to great heights in the global performing arts industry. He was named 2007 Commonwealth Musician of the Year, won the 55th Royal Over-Seas League Music Competition, and now plays as principal cellist of Singapore Symphony Orchestra.
Pei-Sian now makes his big return to AYO as soloist in the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor. Ahead of this December event, he reflects on how very far he’s come.
Hi Pei-Sian! When did you first participate in AYO, and what was the most powerful lesson that sticks in your memory?
I have such great memories of performing Bruckner’s 9th symphony in 1999! It was truly life-changing, no exaggeration. Learning this great work with such intensity and depth surrounded by like-minded friends, I had the time of my life! It was the first time I fully felt the power of symphonic music and the heights of emotion only an orchestra can produce.
The following year, we toured Australia with Pinchas Zukerman — Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, and Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. The passion and energy I experienced within myself and around me was palpable. It was all new to me, a bit scary and absolutely thrilling!
How does it feel to return to AYO as a soloist, having previously played as a member of the orchestra?
I truly feel so honoured to come back home and play with the AYO. My wish is that I can deliver a performance true to myself that will also inspire our next generation of young musicians.
When you perform the concerto, you’ll be sharing a stage with musicians who are where you have been. What do you hope they are getting out of this experience, now that you’re in a position to look back on what it meant to you at the time?
I have collaborated with several youth orchestras in the past, and it is something I really enjoy. With great passion and dedication, young musicians are able to produce extraordinary music together. I hope to be a good role model, and share my experience and great joy of music with them.
There is so much chamber music in the concerto. The interplay of voices, the musical arguments and conversation is what really excites me. I hope they are sensitive to my part and give me the room to be heard. The cello is a great solo instrument, but the lower register does at times require a delicate touch from the orchestra!
Pei-Sian, your progression to your current role is extraordinary. How did you advance from the AYO to Singapore Symphony Orchestra?
I definitely don’t take anything I’ve achieved for granted. There is surely an element of luck and good timing.
I was never the type of musician to practice more than three or four hours a day. Working smart, finding solutions, building a work with understanding and a strong foundation is more important. Don’t waste time repeating bad habits or mistakes — it only ingrains the problems, making it difficult to fix later on.
Most importantly, be courageous, dare to say something with your music, and be sincere!
How would you describe a day in the life of the SSO as principal cellist — and are there any tips our routines you picked up from AYO that you continue to practice in this environment?
Orchestra life is wonderful! You learn new repertoire each week, or rediscover the great works, and have the opportunity share it with our beautiful audiences.
What I learnt in AYO was to try to blend my sound with my colleagues; find the same bow strokes and vibrato. The fun begins when you begin to understand what function your role is in the musical texture. Is it the melody? It is the bass line? Or is it a reaction to another line? Are we playing together with the French horns or responding to the violas?
What do you love about the solo work you’ll soon play with AYO?
Saint-Saens Concerto No. 1 in A minor was the very first concerto I performed with an orchestra when I was a young teenager. It is very concise at about 18 minutes with three movements that connect. It has a huge variety of emotions — very dramatic and fiery, romantic, and also innocent in the second movement. It is a whirlwind piece that is just a joy to perform!
Before we let you get back to your practice, what fundamental advice do you have to give the next generation of musicians in Australia?
Music is an art form, not a competition. Dare to express but do it intelligently! Understand your musical choices.
See Pei-Sian Ng perform with Australian Youth Orchestra in Concert at Melbourne Town Hall, 7.30pm December 15. Book online.
Images supplied. AYO captured by Robert Catto. Strings (above) by Marc Ginot.
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