BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
At 25 years old, Nicholas Young might very well be considered a piano virtuoso.
The Young Steinway Artist won the 2016 Allison/Henderson Sydney Eisteddfod and Michael Kieran Harvey Scholarships, and has appeared as a soloist across Australia and Europe presenting many a world premiere along his way. A former 2011 ABC Symphony Australia Young Performers Awards winner (keyboard) and runner-up in the 2012 Australian National Piano Award, Nicholas will launch his 2017 season at the Utzon Room – sharing new Australian music alongside old favourites from classical composers.
But despite his achievements, Nicholas considers himself “no expert on the topic” of virtuosity. How is this so? At what point does a musician reach the level of virtuoso? We delve into conversation to find out what this pianist thinks, and advice he has for others looking to pursue artistic heights.
Nicholas, congratulations on your many awards so far – all achieved ahead of your 26th birthday this February. How does it feel to have reached global success so early in your career?
Thank you, that’s very flattering! I’m reluctant to consider myself a global success just yet, but can say I feel very fortunate to have experienced a lot as a pianist performing in Australia and internationally, and am always humbled by the accolades and kind words of appreciation that have come my way in the process. But there is still a lot for me to explore, develop and work on in order to make my career a lasting success, and I try to remind myself of that every day.
For your 2017 premiere concert, you’ve said you’re exploring the idea of classical virtuosity through non-classical traditions. How would you define virtuosity?
I’m no expert on the topic, but I personally define virtuosity as the state of complete harmony between technique and expression, in which a performer communicates as naturally with an instrument as he or she thinks in the mind or feels from the heart. This is not only reflected in the loud and fast, but also the soft and slow of playing an instrument, and every microscopic nuance in between, which is what defines a great classical musician.
How does a musician know when they’ve reached the status of virtuoso? Is this a defined point, based on the level of music we can play? Or how we identify ourselves?
I think being a virtuoso, strictly speaking, is a theoretical point of perfection that we can never reach. But whenever we play in public, we should be aspiring to that level – ‘being’ a virtuoso is a stage requirement. It is not so much the end as the means to a memorable performance, whether that’s in Carnegie Hall or in front of your friends at home.
When and how did you realise you’d reached this level in your musical career, so much so that you can now portray concepts like these to your audience?
I’ve been juggling artistic, theoretical and academic ideas since at least my Honours year at the Sydney Conservatorium in 2012, so it has been in my mind for quite some time to apply new concepts into my performance work. Winning the 2016 Michael Kieran Harvey Scholarship, which is aimed towards the furtherance of piano performance culture, was the ultimate push that has encouraged me to take the leap and realise my concepts in concert. Whether there is a right time or ‘level’ at which to attempt such things I am unsure – as far as I’m concerned, any time is a good time to be exploring new ways of performing and presenting music.
Tell us about your 2017 concert launch in Sydney – what do the works you’ve chosen tell us about you?
My opening recital of 2017 at the Sydney Opera House Utzon Room will be a manifesto of the culture that shapes me as a pianist and person. Through Mozart and Mussorgsky, I pay respects to our great classical heritage, which remains the foundation of modern pianism. Through the music of Australian composers Jonathan Mui, Kate Moore and Ian Munro – three vastly different and fascinating minds – I look to the rich variety of contemporary expression that speaks of our present, complex reality. And with the arrangements featured in Mockingbird, I affirm my advocacy for the piano as the premier instrument of solo performance in any genre. These are all just the first steps in my journey, and I hope the concert will give audiences an idea of my artistic directions in the years ahead.
What is the concept behind Mockingbird?
The mockingbird is distinguished by its uncanny imitations of the sounds of other birds, animals and even non-living objects. For centuries, pianists have been using the piano to pretend to be singers (Mozart and Chopin), entire orchestras (Beethoven, Liszt, Rachmaninov, etc.), percussion (Bartók and Messiaen), and a great many other things. Mockingbird celebrates this imitative tradition and will be a long-running series of performances and recordings in which I apply the techniques of virtuosic piano transcription/arrangement to a broad range of music, usually non-classical, to explore how closely the piano can replicate the sound and spirit of an original piece of music under a single pair of hands.
It is not so different in essence from arrangements or ‘covers’, but my point of interest is in the maximal use of a pianist’s technical potential, and in this aspect I hope to show through Mockingbird how classical piano technique leads to the greatest range of possibilities in musical imitation – and a great deal of personal satisfaction to those who take the time to learn the instrument.
In simpler terms, Mockingbird will be a gateway for the less familiar listener to get to know classical pianism through more easily recognised music, and on the flip side, a gateway for myself to delve into some of the great music that lies outside of the ‘serious’ classical repertoire.
What advice do you have for other young pianists?
Work towards your craziest dreams. With perseverance, it is rarely the question of whether you will achieve a goal – merely when. To those considering, or newly embarking on, piano performance as a career, listen to your teachers, but also draw from the experiences, advice and inspiration of your peers active in the field. And never be afraid to try something a little different – the world is thirsting for new ideas and will lend an ear to enthusiastic, young musicians who love what they do.
Watch Nicholas Young perform at the Utzon Room, February 9. Tickets available online.