Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I remember at a young age hearing Brahms’ Symphony No.1 being performed at the Sydney Opera House and feeling like I needed to be a part of this world. Despite being so young, the music was just so heartbreakingly beautiful to me. I begged my parents to let me play an instrument, and they decided to start me on the piano; my family didn’t have a background in classical music but they were all appreciators of it. Little did they know that I would be pursuing a professional career 20+ years from when I first touched the piano at age 5!
I got serious about piano performance when I was about 10, and decided I wanted to pursue my dream with pinpoint focus. At that point, I had already won some lesser national eisteddfod’s and competitions, and I enjoyed being on stage. I was studying with Margaret Hair, a renowned Australian pianist who went to the Guildhall School of Music in London on an Australian Arts Council Overseas Fellowship. She really ignited my passion for music and is probably one of the most influential people in my life. Before I even graduated high school, I was being invited to perform internationally at well-known festivals around the world. Unfortunately, the classical music industry in Australia is quite small; it’s a young country that is far away from everything else and hasn’t quite caught up culturally.
So to continue building my career, I went to the United States on a scholarship to the esteemed New England Conservatory where I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in piano performance. Going overseas was hugely eye-opening for me: I was exposed to a whole other level of performance that wasn’t available in Australia, and I felt truly privileged to bring my experience back to Australia when I was invited to perform at the Kawai Sydney Piano Masterclass Festival. I think the expertise I gained in the United States heavily influenced my musical life. I continued my career and education at Boston University where I met some of the most influential musicians in my life; one of them was Noa Kageyama, a violinist and performance psychologist at the Julliard School who specializes in performance anxiety. I dedicate a lot of my musical life now to trying to raise awareness and help musicians with performance anxiety.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
For me, it was performance anxiety, I developed a fear of the stage at a young age, and it walked hand-in-hand with my love for performance. It was a very strange paradox that I believe many musicians can empathize with. I think however this great challenge I was faced with was what motivated me to become an expert in the niche between performance and psychology that I now occupy. In many ways, I’ve turned a weakness into a strength, and my work with other musicians is very rewarding.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I’ve recorded and performed some works by Graham Hair, an Australian composer and the brother of my aforementioned teacher in Australia. His works are well-known in Australia and the United Kingdom, and he was the Gardiner Professor of Music at the University of Glasgow. I also recorded a Violin and Piano Sonata by George Walker, the first African-American composer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, I had the opportunity to perform at the Beethoven Institute at Mannes in New York, as well as being asked by Mr. Walker himself to come to play for him a year before his passing; it was a humbling experience. These pieces featured in my album Reflections of Home: Musings of a Transplant. I’m proud of these recordings because they build a cultural bridge between Australia and the United States for me. I consider Australia and the United States as places that I hold very dear to my heart and being able to represent that musically is very important to me.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I have a pretty wide scope for what I perform. I love performing new and contemporary music by living composers as I think it’s so important for the world to appreciate the growth of classical music. I also think that I play impressionist works by Ravel and Debussy well, and my absolute favourite composer to perform is Beethoven; I believe his works show the extremes of human emotion. My performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto no.1 is also one that I am very proud of!
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I read a lot. I think it’s really important to be well-read as a musician; books essentially give a view into another world. It allows ideas to ventilate, and it’s a way I can vicariously expose myself to many experiences that will always inspire me on stage.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Usually, I try and programme my repertoire with a theme in mind. A lot of the time, it is actually dependent on the performance engagements I already have set up. For example, when I was invited to perform at the Ian Hobson International Steinway Society Festival in Puerto Rico, I was to perform for the Cannon Club at the Gallery Inn in Old San Juan, which was a very intimate and dimly-lit space. I chose to programme Ravel’s Ondine and Schubert’s Sonatas for this recital for their simplicity and intoxicating beauty. I had Rachmaninoff Sonatas and an array of Liszt pieces that I could have programmed, but I don’t believe it would have worked well in such an intimate setting. I think the space you perform in is very important.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
My favourite concert venue to perform in is the Kulturzentrum Kapuzinerkloster [Cochem, Germany]. I have performed there on multiple occasions, when I was invited to give concerts at the famed Internationaler KlavierSommer in Cochem. It used to be a monastery, so its acoustics are extremely wet and resonant (think of the Gregorian chants that echoed through the halls). It’s a difficult venue to perform in due to how long the sound resonates, but if you choose the right repertoire to perform the music becomes hauntingly beautiful. Its history, its structure, and the spirit behind this building create an unbelievably religious experience.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
I think that it’s important for performers like us to spread our love for classical music to the coming generation. We cannot be purely self-serving or egotistical about our music. After all, things only last across generations when they are PRESERVED in the next generation. There is an air of elitism sometimes when it comes to classical music, and I think this kind of perception has to be eradicated. This doesn’t mean we should cheapen or “simplify” the music for the sake of popularity; rather it’s our job as performers to help educate the immediate people around us about WHY classical music is so important, especially kids, who are highly impressionable at a young age. Classical music right now is both a dying art form and one that has transcended time; it’s in our hands to keep the latter true.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
It was probably when I got to perform Mozart’s Concerto in D minor K.466 at the Sydney Classical Concerto Competition at the National Sydney Eisteddfod. It was an amazing experiencing playing at the Utzon Room, and it was truly a rare opportunity. Although I came in second for the competition, It was one of those rare moments where I felt like I had actually performed at my peak, and was fully satisfied with the way I performed that beautiful piece.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
In my opinion, it is the ability to communicate that defines the success of a musician. I know it’s a cliché, but music really is a universal language. We need to be able to express all the facets of life through our music and communicate that to the audience. Our intentions, emotions, and ideas can’t be lost in translation. It’s a truly difficult skill that I believe every musician has to battle with for the majority of their lives!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
To be kind to themselves. It’s okay to want to strive for excellence, perfection, and acclaim, but I don’t think this should be done to the detriment of the relationships and connections that we foster. It honestly took me too long to learn that lesson, and I think if I was given this advice when I was younger, I would have avoided a lot of unnecessary suffering! Another would be to stay humble. If there was one thing that I remember being told as a young musician by my mentors, it would be that arrogance is a musician’s biggest folly. Once you become arrogant, your will to learn and experience new things disappears, you stop growing, and you stagnate. Stay humble and keep learning.
Where would you like to be in 10 years’ time?
That’s a really difficult question! I don’t even really know where I’d like to be in one year if I was being totally honest! But…I’d hope that I would become an inspiration to the next generation of musicians in 10 years’ time, and be able to help them overcome their individual obstacles. I’d just like to pay forward the kindness, guidance, and knowledge I’ve received over my career.
Matthew Xiong is an Australian classical pianist based in Boston, Massachusetts. Born into a family with no musical roots, Matthew fell in love with classical music when he had a close encounter with Brahms’s 1st Symphony at a young age. Soon after, Matthew began his studies in piano. He has studied under many of the leading musicians of this time, among them are Margaret Hair, John Perry, Ian Hobson, Robert Mcdonald, and Ignat Solzhenitsyn. An avid chamber musician, Matthew has also worked with members of the Borromeo and Brentano quartets. Matthew received his Bachelor of Music at the New England Conservatory under the tutelage of Gabriel Chodos and Bruce Brubaker, and his Masters of Music at Boston University under Boaz Sharon.
“Being kind and to stay humble”, a must-learn wisdom for musicians! Thank you for the interview and the introduction to Matthew Xiong’s recordings on contemporary music by Graham Hair and George Walker. Great works indeed.