I understand you began studying for a medical degree – how did you wind up in a career in music?
I come from a family that encouraged both arts and sciences. My father and brother are health care professionals, and my mother is a singer. While I began my formal education following in the footsteps of the gentlemen in my family, I ultimately decided to pursue music. In my first year in medical school at the University of New South Wales, I entered and won the ABC Young Performer of the Year Award and released an album featuring the Rachmaninov Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra shortly afterward. Bruce Dowton, the former dean of the medical school at UNSW, had a heart-to-heart with my parents in his office and persuaded them to give me their blessing for a career in music.
David Fung. Photo © Neda Nevace
You’ve had great competition success here, of course, but also internationally. How did those experiences shape your career?
These major competitions each left their indelible mark on my career. The ABC Young Performer of the Year Award justified (if only to my parents) an exit from my medical studies and ultimately led to an invitation to the very first cohort at the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles. The major international wins allowed for collaborations with some of the world’s finest conductors with the leading orchestras in Europe and Israel, and my relationships with a number of those ensembles and conductors have continued to flourish.
The performance experiences at the competitions were sometimes as harrowing as much as they were exhilarating. I recall being very anxious for my Mozart concerto with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the finals of the Rubinstein Competition as I had only begun learning the piece a week prior to my arrival in Tel Aviv. The pressure of playing in front of a full house at the Bronfman Auditorium, broadcast live on radio and television throughout Israel and Europe, didn’t do much to dispel the butterflies. I went skydiving a few days after returning to Los Angeles just to make sure I was still able to feel something after the adrenaline and anxiety of the finals.
Occasionally, things don’t go as planned, and one of my competition experiences helped me learn that being flexible is as important as being prepared. I dislocated the index finger in my left hand several days before the finals at the Queen Elisabeth Competition and had to re-finger the Brahms Second Piano Concerto as well as a Mozart Sonata to avoid using the injured finger. In this fight-or-flight scenario, a steroid shot allowed me to go on stage to play the finals with Marin Alsop conducting the National Orchestra of Belgium.
Was there a moment when you felt that you had ‘made it’?
My Edinburgh International Festival solo debut was presented among a fantastic line-up of pianists: András Schiff, Alfred Brendel, and Richard Goode. I erroneously felt I had ‘arrived’!
I think as musicians, we are always looking at the next goal, whether it be the next ‘dream’ orchestra we want to collaborate with or the next level of success. It’s easy to feel dissatisfied in this industry, and many colleagues who appear to have it all struggle with the notion of success and happiness. When I find myself in a negative mindset, I remind myself of how lucky I am to perform music. Success is elusive, but the joy of making music is everlasting.
When did you first become interested in early music and what intrigued you about it?
I first played harpsichord with the Colburn Orchestra while I was a freshman. I was fascinated by the variety of sound the harpsichord could achieve despite its rather rudimentary mechanism. We performed some of the Brandenburg Concertos at Walt Disney Concert Hall, which was a marvellous way to get my feet wet. Since then, I served as the keyboardist for the Yale Baroque Ensemble, which was an ensemble-in-residence at Yale. I currently direct the University of Georgia Baroque Ensemble.
You’re playing Bach with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra on this tour, how important has Bach’s music been to you as a musician?
Bach represents the apex of the Baroque period and also the beginning of what was to come. I can trace aspects of every work I have performed back to Bach. The inherent ingenuity in his use of harmony, structure, and polyphony is mystifying and beguiling.
Bach’s keyboard concertos oscillate brilliantly between energetic dance forms and sublime beauty. Hubris deftly gives way to humility in moments where Bach comes face to face with a higher power.
Who are the teachers or musicians who have influenced your approach to Bach the most?
I’ve worked with Masaaki Suzuki, Simon Carrington, Wieland Kuijken, Eva Legêne, Robert Levin, and Robert Mealy. Each of these players have influenced my approach to Bach and baroque music in general.
Are there any recordings that have particularly spoken to you?
There are some beautiful live performances on the web of Maria João Pires performing Mozart Concertos, as well as some terrific audio and video work by Jeannette Sorrell with Apollo’s Fire.
What are the pleasures and challenges of performing Bach on a modern instrument?
One of the main challenges of performing Bach on modern instruments is the sheer volume of sound they produce. Modern instruments have primarily evolved to project well in larger spaces, and sometimes that makes it difficult to capture the transparency in the sound as well as the gestures and articulations that instinctually come with it. One of the joys of playing on a modern grand piano is the dynamic and colouristic freedom that comes with it.
What’s next for you?
I will be releasing the first instalment of the complete Mozart Sonatas on the Steinway & Sons Label in July. I will also be performing at festivals in Barcelona, Maine, Alaska, New Jersey, Georgia, and Ottawa in the northern summer.
David Fung performs Bach Concertos with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra at Hawthorn Arts Centre on May 2, Riverlinks Eastbank, Shepparton, on May 3, Melbourne Recital Centre on May 5, Latrobe Performing Arts Centre, Traralgon, on May 7 and Wesley of Warragul on May 8