Boasting an impressive list of achievements, the classical pianist recently graduated from Juilliard
An accomplished classical music pianist, composer and conductor at a young age, Tengku Ahmad Irfan Tengku Ahmad Shahrizal hasn’t let his achievements go to his head. He remains humble and earnest, not to mention unerringly polite—this is evident from my back-and-forth correspondence with him via email and WhatsApp. He comes across as shy yet open and approachable, but get him up on stage and there’s no mistaking his passion as he runs his nimble fingers on the piano keys or when conducting a full orchestra.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 22-year-old is currently quarantined in the house he lives in together with his mum, dad and two younger sisters. They moved to New York when he turned 14, in order for him to get admitted to the prestigious Juilliard School’s pre-college programme. While he still kept up with his online classes with Juilliard throughout the lockdown, he says he misses his regular walks in Central Park and going to concerts. “Even during the busiest times in the midst of school exams, I still watch performances. What I miss the most, however, is the time spent with friends and seeing people face-to-face," he admits.
The music prodigy balances his time between piano practice, composing, and academic work. But he makes sure to step away from the rigours of daily practice to do something else outside of music, be it playing computer games, watching his favourite sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory or hanging out with his loved ones.
During lockdown, he even managed to binge-watch all 18 seasons of Hell’s Kitchen. Watching cooking shows holds a fascination for this aspiring chef (as he once mentioned, were he to pick a career outside of music); after all, the level of detail, innovation and craft that goes into producing a single dish is comparable to what he does when creating his compositions, or playing a concerto.
Tengku Irfan was planning to take a break from composing during the quarantine period but that was not to be. “I got requests and commissions from some of my friends that I really felt close towards and felt the need to write for them, so I winded up writing actually. As composers, it is hard to get solitary time from what has been happening in the outside world. However, I did my best to produce something during this time of solidarity. That being said, it is still not an easy task. With more time, I do dwell a lot even on a single note.”
He cites Leonard Bernstein as a big inspiration. Does he aspire to be a great renaissance man like him? “Even though I know that I would never live up to what he contributed to music and humanity, he embraced all aspects of life, which is something that I am trying to improve in myself too. It is easy for musicians to get too ‘comfortable’ in doing the same thing. However, looking at Bernstein, he is highly passionate in anything that he does even though the activities are varied from one another. I truly admire his openness to everything.”
Tengku Irfan recently graduated from Juilliard with a Bachelor of Music and a double major in piano and composition; he plans to pursue his Master’s in the next two years and also hopes to teach one day. When asked to choose between the piano, conducting or composing, he is certain he can’t imagine himself only doing one of those facets. He likes to take each day as it comes, and for now, this Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra youth ambassador is looking forward to performing once concert halls reopen.
As a musician, there is always something to improve, but more often than not, the tendency is to focus on the flaws instead of appreciating what worked well.
Tengku Irfan has been exposed to music practically his whole life. After being found playing classical music pieces — something he naturally gravitated to — on an electronic Yamaha keyboard, his parents signed him up for piano lessons at the age of seven; four years later, he made his debut as a featured soloist at the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra gala concert, playing a Beethoven piano concerto in E-flat major. He received a slew of awards along the way, including the 2012 ASCAP Charlotte Bergen Award and the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Award in 2012 and 2014. In 2015, the Aspen Music Festival regular made his conducting debut with the MusicaNova Orchestra in Phoenix, Arizona as he premiered his own composition, a string orchestral piece titled Nocturne, at age 16.
And it does not stop there. The young virtuoso has gone on to perform with orchestras worldwide, alongside great musicians and conductors such as David Robertson and Kristjan Järvi—the latter had commissioned him to compose an orchestral piece for the MDR Radio Symphony Orchestra, which was performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, the seat of classical music and the very same venue where Beethoven and Mozart premiered their own compositions.
Did he ever feel awestruck or intimidated meeting them? “I am happy to say that I am more awestruck working with them,” he says. “There is never any sense of intimidation or fear; I admire not only their amazing skill and ability but also their humility. Sometimes they say there are things that they want to improve even though I see them as accomplished musicians.”
What were the key takeaways or lessons learnt from his experiences with them?
“There are many things that I learned from them, but one of the encouraging things is that they are a strong advocate for taking risks in music and in performing as well as trying out things that have not been done before. Sometimes this feels dangerous, but they say that it is what actually makes music fresh, and that younger people should not be afraid since there is nothing to lose by doing this.”
Integrating classical music with other components, such as dance, visuals, electronics, or even acting would give a different perspective on the music yet not ‘destroy’ the music of the past.
Ever since the coronavirus had upended lives, artists and musicians tried to find a way to bring joy and comfort to the home-bound audiences by streaming live shows from their own living rooms. Seeing that music is a way to connect despite living in isolation, Tengku Irfan tells of the collaborative project he took part in called the ‘Bolero Juilliard’ (watch the video above), which showcased the talents of Juilliard’s creative community to the beat of Ravel’s iconic score, which was arranged by David Robertson, Juilliard’s director of conducting studies, and Kurt Crowley, the music director of Hamilton.
The scale of the production was immense. Each talent played their part and recorded from their own homes—dancers were taught the choreography by Larry Keigwin via Zoom sessions; actors, singers and alumni contributed videos of themselves doing some form of action (see if you can spot Yo-Yo Ma, Laura Linney, Christine Baranski and Bebe Neuwirth); while the musicians, including Tengku Irfan, played their notes. With hundreds of short videos and audio tracks accumulated, the process of syncing everyone’s parts together took a very long time.
Tengku Irfan beams: “The video became popular with not only the musicians but also people of different backgrounds. I see a lot of potential for classical music to keep growing despite the restrictions imposed by the lockdown. Even without it, online platforms such as YouTube or medici.tv have seen a lot of musical performances while social media such as Instagram and Facebook have resonated more with the generations of classical musicians today.”
In an article in The Observer, a question was raised on whether classical music is due for a makeover. What is stopping the classical music genre from innovating? Mulling over the notion, Tengku Irfan points out: “Composers like Beethoven were seen as the ‘new’ and avant-garde of their day. From our perspective, it is easy to look at it as the past but when Beethoven was alive, his music was (and still is) fresh to our ears. I wouldn’t say that the classical music genre is not innovative; there are a lot of composers out there who have unique voices today and that they integrate classical music in what they write.
“Also, this question resonates with regard to people who think that music of the past can only be played as how it was played in those days. That is not to say that they are wrong, but how dull would it be if everyone played the same piece the same exact way? That is why different interpretations and personal inclinations really matter, and it is something that performers have to think about, aside from worrying about the notes and dynamics of the music.
“I wouldn’t change anything that has happened in the past centuries as I strongly believe that what the composers did in the past are great on their own. However, integrating classical music with other components, such as dance, visuals, electronics, or even acting would give a different perspective on the music yet not ‘destroy’ the music of the past. This is just one of the many possibilities out there," he concludes.
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PJ Lam, shot in New York via FaceTime