Dodging bullets on the way to school, music as “competitive cage-fighting” almost turned the Chinese cellist off the classics for good.

As a young cellist, music was the last thing Trey Lee wanted to do. Born in Hong Kong, Lee grew up in New York and went on to study music in Madrid and Cologne. He’s now based in Berlin and is founder and Artistic Director of the Hong Kong Musicus Fest. Now mentioned in the same breath as famous Chinese artists like Lang Lang, Yuja Wang and Yundi Li, Lee gave up the cello at the end of high school to study economics with plans of working on Wall Street.

Lee moved to the USA when he was eight years old because his mother – a piano teacher – wanted him and his sisters to study at Juilliard. “She was really singularly focussed on getting the three of us – especially my two sisters – to become musicians,” he says.

“New York City in the 80s was really scary,” Lee remembers, “I mean we were mugged on the subway, we were mugged on the streets. My high school was in Alphabet City, on the Lower East side. Now it’s a hipster haven, but back then it was a crack cocaine haven. I was really literally dodging bullets and gangsters on the way to school.”

Lee’s Saturdays were spent in Juilliard’s Pre-College programme, envious of kids who could spend their Saturdays watching cartoons. But despite his mother’s ambitions for him, the intensive training turned him off music as a career path. “The whole focus was so much on prodigies and competitions and technique,” he says, “When someone asked me recently what I learnt at Juilliard, I really couldn’t say. I didn’t want to be a musician – I thought it was such a loser profession because I saw so many miserable people locked up in practice rooms on the fourth floor at Juilliard. They have these tiny practice rooms with no windows and really thick curtains. It’s this completely dead environment. I just saw these zombies, pale-faced, coming out of these rooms occasionally for a drink of water or to go to the toilet. And I thought, ‘that’s the last thing I want to do with my life.’”

The attitude to music seemed particularly unpleasant to Lee. “It was a very artificial type of competitiveness that was engendered by that environment,” he says, “especially at the younger Pre-college division. There were a lot of parents around who were hovering – helicopter parents and tiger parents – and that created a really toxic environment.”

“The kids then had this attitude of music as a sport, basically,” he explains, “As a competitive cage-fighting sport, where you go on stage and your main goal is to nail everything on your instrument and then be as fast and loud as you can and come off like a gymnast off a vault. I think coming from that it’s hard to like music, let alone want to be a musician.”

For Lee, academics at the public ‘Math and Science’ High School he attended were the most important thing, because they represented a chance to escape that life. “I did well because I was very focused on my future and wanted to make a billion dollars,” he explains.

As soon as he graduated, Lee put down the cello to study Economics at Harvard. “I think everyone arrives at Harvard is either full of themselves or totally intimidated,” he says, “I was more intimidated. And rightly so, because I realised everybody is good at something – that put a lot of things in perspective. You have to be open minded, and I think at Juilliard there was always just one way of playing, for me, but after encountering all these different people with different talents, I realised there are many ways.”

Meeting new people at Harvard sparked a renewed interest in music. “A lot of them, shockingly, knew more about classical music than I did. Even though they might not have played an instrument – they just enjoyed it! I thought, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know anything.’”

It was also around this time that Lee began to appreciate music as a listener and it was the cello solo in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto that really sold the instrument to him. “When I was studying music I didn’t listen to music, so I didn’t know the Brahms concerto – I never listened to music as a form of enjoyment,” he says. “In my senior year in college I finally bit the bullet and bought a CD player. I went to HMV or Tower Records and just went crazy. Somehow I ended up with this concerto – Rudolf Serkin, I think it was, with Cleveland. I stumbled upon this third movement, which was absolutely jaw-dropping for me. All of a sudden the cello completely takes over the piece. I didn’t know that was possible on the cello, not just the music, but the power it had over such an enormous work. I kept listening to it over and over again. I thought, ‘I would be happy if I could just play that one day.’”

After working as a business consultant in Boston – a job for which Lee found himself uniquely unsuited – he enrolled in the Masters programme at the New England Conservatory. “After the hiatus it took a couple more years – more than a couple more years – to get in real shape,” Lee explains and following his Masters, at the advice of his teacher, he moved to Europe to continue studying. “That was another complete eye-opening experience,” he says, “because I never realised that just across these borders in Europe, there were such stark differences in style and traditions that I’d never heard before in the US. I was really impressed going from country to country and hearing amazing musicians everywhere.”

These days Lee’s music career is well and truly on track, with performances that take him around the world. This is the first time, however, that Lee has been to Australia. After meeting and playing with the AFCM’s Artistic Director Piers Lane in Korea, Lee jumped at the chance to come to Townsville. As a festival director himself, Lee is intimately acquainted with the challenges of running an event like this. “With a festival the schedules are always really crazy,” he says, “but I think they’ve been very aware of musicians’ needs, which helps a lot. Musicians are a funny lot. Everyone’s personality and moods can change depending anything from blood sugar levels, to time of day and the season and how their instrument is behaving. It’s an alchemy trying to fit all of this together.”

For Lee, one of the highlights has been performing works he hasn’t played before. “The Bach Ich habe genug cantata, that was a revelation for me – Roderick Williams is such an expressive, powerful presence.”

“Hats off to Piers,” Lee says, “I think he’s done a really good job. He’s also assembled a very nice group of people. The chemistry is so important in an event like this and that comes across in the performances – if you don’t click, it’s obvious!”