Interview: Steinway Artist Warren Lee, Hong Kong

You are a concert pianist, composer and a music educator. Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?

Every part! In fact, I believe that all these hats that I wear and roles that I play are interconnected in a synergetic way. I can’t really see myself being just a concert pianist or just an educator. I find it my calling to bring the “performer” – often seen as a “star” on stage, distant from the audience – closer to the every day life of the next generation. And through interacting with them, I get inspired and motivated in return. It is truly a gratifying process, but one that requires as much time management skills as discipline, I must add.

Why have you decided to work with students from the St. Paul’s Co-educational College and Primary School (SPCCPS)?

It’s simple – SPCCPS is my alma mater, which has not only nurtured my musical talents, but also instilled a set of core values in me early on: the sense of responsibility, discipline, perseverance and humility. I was coined a “child prodigy” very early on after appearing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic at the age of six, and these core values were critical in ensuring my personal and artistic growth were not affected by the media, or the emergence of an unwanted ego! Now, it is my turn to give back, and be the mentor to the students at St. Paul’s, as the Music Director of the College and its Primary School.

I have also had the great fortune to have a few wonderful mentors in my life, at Marlborough College, Royal Academy of Music as well as Yale University. Their influences on me run in my blood. I just aspire to be that kind of mentor now.

Warren Lee performed the Yellow River Concerto with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra in the National Day Concert in 2014. He’ll be playing Ode to the Yellow River from the concerto in the Gala Concert on 15 July.

What are the challenges and rewards that are unique when working with young performers?

You would think that the applauses and praises one receives after playing a major concert, with a professional orchestra and in a major venue far surpasses the satisfaction one gets from performing with young children – amateurs whose skills are yet to be refined. For me, there are so many instances that the reverse is true. Seeing the sense of accomplishment on the faces of these youngsters, witnessing their musical journeys from defeats to small victories, and their personal growth through tears and struggles; these are unbelievable rewards and truly unique.

One of the pieces you will perform at St. John’s Smith Square, London on 15 July will be a world premiere by the awarding-wining Hong Kong composer Steve Ho. Have you worked with him before, and was the piece specifically composed for this concert?

Yes, I have worked with Steve many times, and premiered his work on multiple occasions. We met through his music, and have since become great friends. We have a pretty deep understanding of one another musically; so I would say, this piece, along with others he wrote for me in the past, is truly tailor made. He has also written for our school choir on numerous occasions before, so he also knows exactly what our choir sound is like. Being close to the composer also gives you the benefit of making suggestions, to which Steve is always receptive!

This new work, When the Eastern Moon is Over The Western Sky, is about the feeling of homesickness in a foreign land, a sentiment both Steve and I shared. He migrated to Canada in the 1980s, and I also studied abroad in England when I was 15. We were both homesick, in the pre-digital age! And so, this piece brings back a lot of memories for me, especially when I will be playing it in London! 

What can visitors of the concert expect from the evening?

First of all, these young performers are really quite talented! The entourage I’ll be bringing include the Most Outstanding Choir of the Year, the best Primary School String Orchestra and the best Senior String Quartet, all crowned recently in the Hong Kong Schools Music Festival in 2015.

As much as it will be about a musical experience with with masterpieces of chamber, choral and orchestral music,it will be about experiencing a taste of the Chinese culture. The performance will include highlights from the famed Yellow River and Butterfly Lovers’ Concertos, as well as the world premiere of When the Eastern Moon Is Over the Western Sky by Steve Ho I mentioned earlier.

Warren Lee with SPCCPS Orchestra On & Off
Warren Lee with SPCCPS Orchestra On & Off

On the same day, you’ll be performing alongside your students, the SPCC String Quartet, in a chamber music concert at St. Dunstan in the West. What is the experience like for them and for you?

Performing with my students is something I started doing this year, and it is giving me immense pleasure. This all started when I toured with my former teacher, pianist Boris Berman last year in China, which has given me so much pleasure, inspiration as well as confidence.

Though I can’t speak for my students, I can certainly tell you that it was quite nerve wrecking when I met my former teacher for the first rehearsal ahead of a tour of seven concerts. I felt like a student all over again, after so many years. Needless to say, it was an extraordinarily memorable experience for me; and so, I want to replicate it and do it for my students.

In rehearsals, they realise that I am their partner just as much as I am their coach; and this, what-I-call “parallel learning”, is so valuable.

See Warren Lee perform on July 15th 2015 in London CLICK HERE 

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