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She’s Got Rhythm

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She’s Mui Wo-based pianist, educator and presenter Jacqueline Leung is doing her best to spread the gospel of classical piano, even it fit is through computer screens –for now. Elizabeth Kerr reports

Classical pianist Jacqueline Leung says that banging away on piano keys is the only thing keeping her warm in breezy Mui Wo these days, despite it being sunnier than it has been in a week. She’s just finished rehearsal at her Hong Kong-side studio with the other members of the newly formed Phoenix Quartet. It’s one of Jacqueline’s COVID-19 projects (another is relearning the oboe), like the ones we’ve all taken up in the past year.

The four women have been debating what the protocols are for their January 24 online concert (which you can download at www.jacquelineleung.com). “We have no idea what to do between songs,” Jacqueline says with a wry chuckle.

Performing for the computer comes with a steep learning curve, Jacqueline notes, but she agrees it’s a handy skill to have in what’s likely to be a heavily digital post-pandemic world. She’s ok with that, but only up to a point: “It’s not the same; live music is different ballgame. You need to feel the vibrations of the space and the vibe of the audience. But at least we’re playing.”

That’s an understatement from the thirty-something Jacqueline, who’s been playing piano since she was four years old.

Bach to basics
Jacqueline chalks her love of the instrument up to lessons her mother took while she was pregnant. “My mum couldn’t learn when she was younger so she was doing it then. I wanted to learn since I can remember, and really begged when I was four. At that time in Hong Kong teachers wouldn’t take children that young.”

Fortunately her parents found an instructor in North Point who was impressed enough to take her on as a student. Jacqueline played constantly (she still plays on the piano she had at ages even) and her parents agreed to nurture the spark they saw by sending her, first, to Saturday lessons at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, then to Wells Cathedral School in Somerset at 11 for its music programme.

“I really enjoyed Wells,” Jacqueline says. “I was there for seven years, and it really formed who I am. Their motto is ‘Be who you are,’ and I hold on to that to this day. In Hong Kong it’s easy to lose that.”

After graduating from the Royal Academy of Music in London and then picking up a master’s degree from the equally well-regarded Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Jacqueline came home to Hong Kong for good in 2008.

La vie en rose
These days, Jacqueline is highly sought-after as a concert pianist, master class teacher, workshop leader and adjudicator. Described as a player who possesses ‘musicality, intelligence and technical finesse,’ she was elected as an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music (ARAM) in 2013 in recognition of her significant contribution in the musical field, and she’s collaborated with some of the world’s top musicians including Robert Aitken, Andras Adorjan, Jasmine Choi, Iestyn Davies and Trey Lee.

Looking back at her career trajectory, Jacqueline is quick to point out that it wasn’t all sunshine and roses all of the time. “It was hard,” she says. “When you study music all you learn is how to play the piano, and its history. No one teaches you about management, or how to promote yourself, or how to behave on tour, which are all really important.”

But her dedication paid off. Small concerts in Hong Kong, then around Asia, became bigger concerts, recitals and tours across Europe, the US and Latin America. Following a show in Cartagena, Colombia, Jacqueline commandeered a restaurant piano after dinner for an impromptu concert that wasn’t all Bach all the time. “Afterward my friend and I got free tequila,” she recalls with a smile.

That sums Jacqueline up: dedicated to her craft, secure in her skill, but grounded enough to recognise how to get the rest of us to enjoy a piano concerto. Or Little Richard. Or George Gershwin. Or Edith Piaf… La Vie En Rose: The Allure of the Tango, performed “I think the concert hall scares people. You have to be silent, you can’t move, you can’t clap between songs or movements. I think we need that a bit, but we also need more casual settings. If I’m allowed to, I always talk to the audience under The Modern Classics platform at the Soul Live Project Complex in 2018, is arguably one of Jacqueline’s most memorable concerts. She and saxophonist buddy Timothy Sun famously went all out, treating the Vietnamese audience to a steamy journey through traditional tango music into jazz/ classical nuevo tango.

All in all, Jacqueline’s a big fan of balancing the piano’s enduring grace with its fun, accessible side. Likening classical music to wine and art, she is keenly aware classical piano has been made intimidating by an elitist clique.

“I think the concert hall scares people,” she says. “You have to be silent, you can’t move, you can’t clap between songs or movements. I think we need that a bit, but we also need more casual settings. If I’m allowed to, I always talk to the audience.”

Though she still teaches (all ages) and is a regular on the lecture and adjudication circuit (in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, the UK and China), sitting down and playing for an audience remains Jacqueline’s passion. An intimate salon setting, where she can get a drink and sit down with members of the audience after the show to find out how it was from their perspective, is her idea of perfect. “That would make my night,” she says wistfully.

Desert island discs
Until those halcyon days return, Jacqueline can be found online and also on record: Her second album, the Jazz age-influenced That’s the Berries! New York Nights, was released last year. It’s exactly the kind of welcoming interpretation of what could be called standards, mostly Gershwin, including Sweet and Lowdown and I Got Rhythm, that non-aficionados can enjoy.

“When I discovered all of the 18 original transcriptions by George Gershwin which he played at private parties, I fell in love with every single one of them,” Jacqueline says. “I felt strongly compelled to introduce them to more people. The 1920s was the epitome of classiness and indulgence yet there was a sense of timelessness to it.”

Jacqueline’s debut album, In Sunshine or In Shadow, a sort of Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Liszt greatest hits collection, recorded in the legendary Vienna Concert Hall over three days in 2017, is just as accessible. The repertoire on the disc was inspired by Jacqueline’s love of BBC Radio 4’s legendary Desert Island Discs, and the tracks were chosen for their easily recognisable tunes.“Everyone loves melodies, and a good melody is what usually attracts the listener to listen more intently,”

Jacqueline says. “There is a track [on In Sunshine] to suit whatever mood you’re in, whether you’re enjoying a cup of coffee, dreaming about a tropical holiday, doing household chores, sipping a glass of wine after a long day, or simply need something to calm you down and bring solace.”

As we part ways, Jacqueline’s intent on a spot of retail therapy (kitchen gear) before hopping a ferry back to Mui Wo and husband Phil, a radio broadcaster. The couple relocated to Lantau four years ago, after a stretch in Sheung Wan. Initially resistant, Jacqueline has come to appreciate island living and the privacy it affords.

“The house became available, we made a snap decision, and it’s been great,” she finishes. “I can practise until any time I want; weave no neighbours. When I really need to practise I can go until 2or 3 in the morning… That’s impossible to do in town.

Photos courtesy of Jacqueline Leung

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