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?
Since a very young age I have been obsessed in finding meaning in what I do. It came naturally that music is the perfect medium for this tireless search. With every piece comes a life of its own, and they build unique relationships with ourselves. I would simply say that through this journey of music-searching, every musical conversation I have had with people, every phase of performances I have given to audiences, every teacher I have had, shapes my musical life and career.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
The greatest challenges for any young artist, including myself, are always about the mental preparation. Music training is a such a marathon that it is not about how successful you may prepare yourself for a competition when you’re young, but how you sustain your dedication to music-making over a long period of time.
Therefore, I think that the greatest challenges were to keep a healthy and positive mind when things did not go well. And still to maintain the belief and sense of purpose towards the search in music making.
Being at Ingesund Piano Center since 2019, Prof. Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist has been a great mentor as we have a very close community where we support each other for our various challenges. You probably have yet to hear about this place. In short, it is located near a lake in Sweden at the Ingesund School of Music. Our class has only around ten pianists, all of whom are at a considerably high level, pursuing excellence and deep cultivation of our arts. We basically live together, practice intensively together, and have become a very closely knitted ensemble where we support each other.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
Last November, I played a programme named “God Pray Love”. It was a programme that I had in my mind for years, and I was very proud of the approach and attitude there. I am making a recording of this programme in November in the UK, which I am very much looking forward to.
I recorded my first album “Seasons of Life” two years ago at the Wyastone Concert Hall and released the album through my own record label, Ginger Muse HK, as I wanted to own my first commercially-released recording. I was very fortunate to have linked with the legendary recording producer, Andrew Keener, who taught and guided me tremendously in my first record.
“God Pray Love” is unquestionably a concert programme that centred towards the Christian faith. It is interesting that it does not follow exactly a story, but rather a transformative journey. Some of you may have realised that the name was indeed stolen from the film “Eat Pray Love”. But the two have absolutely nothing to do with each other. It was just an amusingly play of words, but it also rhymes with the three “stages” of this concert, namely “God, Pray and Love”. It comprises of music by Bach, Liszt and Franck, with the emotional centre being the Benediction de Dieu dans la Solitude and Franck’s Prelude, Chorale &Fugue.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I think ultimately this question comes to what music is closest to you personally. Therefore, definitely Schubert, Schumann, some of Liszt’s work, Mozart… I tend to play mystical and spiritual music well, as well as deeply emotional and constantly shifting music like Scriabin and Schumann.
I tend to play music that is very serious, and in a very solemn tone, like the pieces in “Seasons of Life” and “God Pray Love”. But actually, to those who know me, I can also be the most nonsensical and ridiculously fun person you can meet. Sometimes this is manifested in music such as De Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance and I do play a lot of Spanish music as well. It is a secret that I rarely share with people. Once I had a friend who said she would want to hear me play Albeniz the moment before she dies…! Hah!
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I watch and read a lot of materials that interest me. I live life at its fullest. I like to cook and enjoy food, to travel and see the world.
At Ingesund it is a different story, as we are limited to very few worldly pleasures such as I would enjoy in a city like Hong Kong. But at the same time, I get to experience nature much more closely than ever. For example, outside our campus, there is this horizon of a forest. In winter it gets very dark, and whenever I stepped out of the building, I was always in awe of the darkness I see. The type of darkness that you can never see in anywhere in Hong Kong. It is truly spectacular. We do not realise it until we see true darkness in nature, that our lives are often filled with lights, noises and colours. This exemplifies what Ingesund is to me. It is a place of rawness. A place that has nothing but the real truths.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I actually had a 10-year plan of my programme since I stepped into the being a professional musician.
Thus it started roughly few years ago when I decided that every programme was about something I wanted to say. It started with “Seasons of Life”, then “Tribute To Death” back in 2015. Then it grew into a “God trilogy” with “Being Human”, “Bach Sutra” & “God Pray Love”. Right now I am on a track to perform some other programmes planned until 2025.
Earlier this year I had an idea to perform a programme of 19 of the most iconic pieces of piano music, ranging from classical, jazz to even some pop tunes. The origin of this concept came when I realised that most of my previous programmes were too heavy and serious. Once in a while, we have to unleash other facets of our personalities too.. The only criteria is that the music-making has to be truthful and the presentation cannot be cheap. Like my teacher Julia always says, it has to be expensive – the playing has to be luxurious.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
Hong Kong City Hall, where I was most welcomed by the audiences in my home, who embraced my experiments in programming.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences/listeners?
The century-old question… but always evolving with time.
Modern audiences are not lacking in knowledge on classical music. They are filled with options that pull them away from classical music.
Thus I think that to grow the pool of classical music’s audiences, it is important to have “extra-ordinary” performers who give something personal and unique to the people who listen. It means that it has to be personalised and original.
Whenever I shared this idea with my music friends, they always ask how can we be original when we all play classical music?
I beg to disagree, because originality is not only about the “origin” of its material. A script comes into life with different actors. Thus I also mean that the persona behind the music programming must be unique, may almost be irreplaceable.
The music is replaceable, but the person who interprets it, the artist who puts a programme out, must not be replaceable.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Trifonov’s Chopin recital. The first half was music that associated and inspired by Chopin. Followed by a Chopin sonata in the second half. It was an original programme, matched with incomparable playing. This is exactly the type of artist we need today.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
If one may be able to perform closer to one’s imagination of oneself, as if one is watching oneself as an audience member. I believe that is success.
It was Adam Smith’s philosophy that we human beings behave as if there’s an invisible self looking at ourselves from a third-person point of view. It is similar to music.
We all have an image of how we want to be, how we want our music to sound. So if you may watch yourself (preferably live), and say that it is how you imagine yourself to be (NOW), it speaks volume.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
For aspiring musicians, it is definitely that music-making is not about success in the short-term. Sometimes when inexperienced teachers and students are overly excited about young competitions and successes, they think that they have had it all. It is a fundamental mistake.
Short-term success doesn’t amount to anything if it is not building into long term opportunities. And opportunities are occasions where one may grow further. Therefore, it is important to always root ourselves in the essence of music-making, to the grounds of a deeply personal, musical search.
Where would you like to be in 10 years?
I want to be known for the programmes I have created. To have recorded them all, and to say that I have become the musician I want myself to be. Hopefully by then, I will be in a difference place where I can offer something else to others, too.
KaJeng Wong is an Artist-in-Residence with Ingesund Piano Center in Arvika, Sweden, which offers young world-class pianists the support to cultivate international, sustainable and high-profile performing careers, led by Julia Mustonen-Dahlkvist. KaJeng Wong performs Gluck’s Melodie from Orfeo ed Euridice (arr. Sgambati) and De Falla’s Danza Ritual del Fuego as part of the Center’s inaugural NORDIC STAGE Gala Concerts online on Thursday 27 May, 3 & 10 June, streaming free from ingesundpiano.com.
Praised for his originality and exceptional musicianship, KaJeng was the winner at the Alaska International Piano E-Competition 2018, and was recently awarded Third Prize at the Maria Canals International Piano Competition 2019.
Previously, KaJeng achieved success at Los Angeles IPC and Young Concert Artist Audition in New York. He received a commendation by the Hong Kong government and has been selected to represent Hong Kong at multiple international platforms, performing at Esplanade in Singapore, Shanghai Concert Hall, Palau de la Musica Catalana and participated in festivals such as PianoTexas, Verbier Festival and Hong Kong Arts Festival. The featured documentary about his growth, “KJ: Music & Life”, was awarded Best Documentary at the Golden Horse Awards.
What a great and inspiring interview. Having met Kajeng this weekend and listened to his play, we are very impressed.