Pianist in a New York state of mind

By William Dart

US-based Henry Wong Doe is a product of AGS and Auckland University's School of Music. Photo / Rob Stoelker
US-based Henry Wong Doe is a product of AGS and Auckland University's School of Music. Photo / Rob Stoelker

Henry Wong Doe is back from New York to play Stravinsky's Piano Concerto with the Auckland Chamber Orchestra tomorrow, alongside works by Antheil, Cresswell and Dean that must make one of the most intriguing programmes of the year.

Although Wong Doe is based in the Big Apple and teaching at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he has not played the Stravinsky piece before and warns that "it's a really wild piece".

"It's written for just piano and wind instruments and is very much like chamber music. It's intensely rhythmic but there are interesting melodic lines coming through, especially in the orchestra."

Student days at Auckland University in the 1990s now seem well in the past, but for the sensitive, young Wong Doe, the School of Music was a new and welcome world. "So many of my musical skills were sharpened there but socially I really enjoyed being with musicians - especially after Auckland Grammar [School], where music had been very much a separate part of my life."

Wong Doe chose not to go to Europe for further studies, as many friends did, but opted for America, which seemed "a much more open place with a greater variety of schools and teaching".

He finally went to Indiana University in Bloomington.

Ultimately, Wong Doe would complete his doctoral studies at Juilliard, with a thesis and presentation based on the mechanical piano or pianola, a curious instrument that has attracted composers from Stravinsky to Conlon Nancarrow.

"It was such a challenge trying to find something to write about," Wong Doe confesses. "I'd been having limited success learning the Ligeti etudes and wondered whether these would work better on the pianola. I was convinced that a machine could do a better job. It wouldn't get excited, it wouldn't rush or have any problems of co-ordination."

His graduation presentation, in New York's Carnegie Hall, alternated his own performances with those of a mechanical instrument and there were revelations. "I played Ligeti's 14th etude, followed by the pianola version. Afterwards, people said that, even with my inaccuracies, it was the more enjoyable performance. An instrument playing itself isn't so very exciting."

Few New Zealanders have had as much experience on the competition circuit as this man. After coming sixth in the 2000 Sydney International Piano Competition, he was the audience favourite in Israel and Italy. Now aged 36, he can relax. "When you get too old to do them [competitions], it's almost a blessing," he smiles.

And winning is not the most important thing. "On one level you might be competing with other people, but you're really competing with yourself. And I was lucky enough to play with some terrific orchestras. Appearing with the Israel Philharmonic was one of the highlights of my life."

Wong Doe made his debut on Trust Records last year with an attractive collection of Gareth Farr's piano music.

Having used Farr's The Horizon from Owhiro Bay as "a little something to clear the palate" in his Carnegie Hall recital, he is now recording this and the 11 other Landscape Preludes recently commissioned and premiered by Stephen De Pledge.

"There are echoes of so many other things apart from the land in these pieces," he reflects, noting that Michael Norris' contribution, Machine Noises, has an unexpected connection with his fascination for mechanical music.

"I like the whole idea of pushing the performer's co-ordination to its maximum."


Performance

What: Auckland Chamber Orchestra

Where and when: Raye Freedman Arts Centre, 6 Silver Rd, Epsom, tomorrow at 5pm

- NZ Herald

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