Hong Kong-born Lee loves vacationing in Penang, where his parents live. — Pictures by Yusof Mat Isa
PETALING JAYA, Oct 9 — Not all successful classical musicians started out as child prodigies.
Celebrated cellist Trey Lee, who is set to perform in Malaysia at the Reimagine Music Festival next month, is living proof of that.
Growing up in a musical family, Lee spent his Saturdays attending the prestigious Juilliard School’s pre-college programme, envious of friends who watched cartoons and played little league baseball.
He found practicing “tedious, boring and meaningless” and would often argue with his piano teacher mum.
His two older sisters, who also attended Juilliard and played the piano and violin respectively, would form a piano trio with their younger brother.
“My mum and I finally made a deal – she said I had to learn the cello until I finish high school and then I was free to do whatever I wanted in university.
“I hated it and told myself I’m never doing this again, which is why I didn’t pursue a degree in Juilliard,” he told Malay Mail.
He ended up studying Economics at Harvard and was set on a Wall Street career that would earn him a lot of money.
Ditching Wall Street for the world stage
It was during his Ivy League days that Lee rekindled his love for classical music after his classmates would tell him how lucky he was to learn music at a revered institution.
But upon graduating, a year’s stint as a management consultant was the wake-up call that changed everything.
“One Sunday at midnight at the office, I’m sitting there on the computer and I thought I don’t want to be doing this for the next 30 years of my life,” he recalled.
So, he switched lanes and took up a Masters in Music at the Boston New England Conservatory before moving to Europe to establish a classical music career.
“I didn’t learn to enjoy music when I was young, so that’s why when we talk about young people now, I can relate,” said Lee, who will host a dialogue session to speak to parents and youths during the festival.
Although his parents were worried at first, they’re happy how things turned out.
His leap of faith and hard work paid off, earning him praise from some of the biggest names in the classical world including the late legendary conductor Lorin Maazel who described Lee as a “superb cellist” while classical music magazine Gramophone said he was a “miracle”.
Following Lee’s concerto debut at Carnegie Hall, he went on to become the first Asian winner of the International Antonio Janigro Cello Competition and was appointed a Unicef Hong Kong ambassador in 2012.
In case you’re wondering, he does not miss his Wall Street days but keeps in touch with his college friends.
“Many of them are quite successful, they have all the material needs covered.
The Juilliard-trained musician studied Economics at Harvard and initially worked as a management consultant.
“But I find that most of them think I have a better life even though I’m nowhere near as financially successful as they are,” said Lee.
An unexpected Malaysian connection
Born in Hong Kong and raised in North America, Lee has been living in Europe for the past 20 years and is as cosmopolitan as it gets.
It turns out, the tiny island of Penang is one of Lee’s most frequented destinations in recent years.
“My parents have been living in Penang for over three years. I love it there, I don’t go anywhere for vacation, I just go to Penang,” the Berlin-based musician said.
The history buff loves walking around Georgetown admiring the historical city’s architecture.
“Every time I go there there’s something new.
“I find that really refreshing compared to so many other cities that get flattened just to build new skyscrapers,” he said.
Lee’s parents moved to Penang because of the climate and food and with both being born in Sumatra, that sense of familiarity was appealing.
They even speak a little Malay.
“I know a few words that I grew up with not realising that they were Malay like timun (cucumber) and sayang (love); random words that I thought was Chinese,” he said.
Reimagining classical music for the modern audience
Lee who co-founded the upcoming Reimagine Music Festival that is set to make its debut in Kuala Lumpur and Penang next month, is also the festival’s artistic director.
Asked whether it was vital to reimagine classical music for its survival in the modern digital age, Lee said it was easy to perceive something as anti-progress or anti-change whenever tradition is involved.
Therefore, many are afraid of reinventing the wheel.
“The greatest artists or most interesting artists not just in music, in every kind of art are those that are able to take, respect tradition but add a new twist and perspective to it,” he added.
In a bid to bring classical music to a wider audience, the Reimagine Music Festival will the prestigious Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra making its Southeast Asia debut and big names such as Lee himself, Noah Bendix-Balgley and Foo Mei Yi delighting music enthusiasts.
It is the first time a music festival as such will be held in Malaysia.
“It’s not just about reimagining the music itself but rather reimagining the whole ecosystem of the music, whether it’s with the artists, audiences or venues,” he said.
Reimagine Music Festival is presented by OSEL Group and The Asquire, co-organised by DFP and the Centre for Research, Advisory and Technology (CREATE) and sponsored by Malaysia Airlines, GMBB and the National Building Institute (NBI).
Malay Mail is the official media partner for the festival.
Concert and ticketing details:
An Evening with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra
When: November 27, 8.30pm to 10.30pm
Where: Dewan Filharmonik Petronas, KLCC, Kuala Lumpur
Ticket prices: RM200, RM250, RM280 and RM380
To purchase, call 603-2331 7007 or visit mpo.com.my.
An Evening of Piano Trios
When: November 29, 8.30pm to 10.30pm
Where: Majestic Theatre, Georgetown, Penang
Ticket prices: RM50, RM120 and RM150
To purchase, call 603-9222 8811 or visit ticketcharge.com.my.
For full details, visit reimaginemusicfestival.com.