It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon when I meet Hoang Pham in an inner-city cafe in Melbourne’s CBD. He orders a cafe latte, and as we sip our coffees I steal a few furtive glances at his hands. They look relatively unremarkable – really quite, well, normal. Somehow it seems unfair, considering this 28-year-old has performed as a piano soloist with the Melbourne, Brisbane and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras and only two weeks ago won the prestigious ABC Symphony Australia Young Performers Awards.
‘Melbourne’s the best city in which to be a musician,’ he says. ‘It’s not too big, first of all, and not too small. Compared with any other city in Australia – and perhaps even the world – we have a good mixture of people from different areas of life who happen to love classical music.’
Hoang was born in Vietnam, but soon after his birth his parents arrived in Australia as refugees. He began playing the piano at three-and-a-half years old, and by the time he was five he had already appeared on national chat shows, hailed as the next Mozart.
I ask him when he first developed a love of music.
‘I’m not sure,’ he says, frowning into his coffee. ‘In high school I felt the beginnings of certain emotions towards it, and now I do it for a living. Music is like a relationship. In the beginning, the love isn’t there, maybe, and then it develops, and then you can’t live without it. And now I can’t live without music because I love it.’
Despite his early and recent success, Hoang’s music career hasn’t all been smooth sailing. ‘Sometimes it’s really tough; you give so much and you get so little. But sometimes you give and you get a tremendous amount in return. In that way it’s very much like human relationships. All the frustrations you feel with that are inherent in music too.’
It’s no wonder Hoang identifies his music so strongly with the idea of love and relationships; his girlfriend is Ji Won Kim, first violinist with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the 2009 winner of the same Young Performers Award that Hoang won last month. His victory, he says, was all the sweeter for her presence in the orchestra during the competition.
Despite Hoang’s many years of training and experience as a professional pianist, it’s clear he still finds performing personally demanding.
‘You can only be yourself on stage if you’re strong,’ he says. ‘That’s the ultimate challenge: to play in front of the public and be yourself. That’s the very best artist. We struggle to be ourselves even in front of our partners or our parents and our friends. When you’re up on stage that’s the most difficult thing in the world.’
Haong says the key to great performances is interpretation. ‘Whether you’re singing a pop song on ‘X Factor’ or playing Beethoven, it’s really all the same thing. You’re giving gripping performances because you’re expressing something that belongs to you only. And whenever you don’t express something that’s very unique to you – that’s when the performance becomes ordinary. Part of it is the extreme talent of the person playing; that can dazzle. But when that’s grouped together with some sort of recognition and sharing of some human quality between the person playing and the audience – that’s really special.
Apart from playing piano, Hoang is also deeply concerned with fundraising for charities. Earlier in the year he raised $10,000 from a piano competition, and also organised a fundraising concert for Breast Cancer Network Australia.
‘It was funny,’ he says, ‘People at the competition thought I was filthy rich, when in fact all I am is someone who can play the piano and do some decent admin. I’m a people person – I love interacting with people and getting them to support things that I believe in.’
In fact, this coming Sunday (10 November) Hoang will play a charity event with Ji Won Kim and cellist Michael Dahlenburg at Deakin Edge in Federation Square. The event will raise money for AED Legal Centre, which works to empower people with disabilities. ‘It’s a very small firm but it does some really incredible work,’ Hoang says. ‘The concert will be very accessible. There’ll be a lot of families and children attending, because those are the sorts of people I like to have along in addition to the other music lovers.’
I ask Hoang whether he sees a difference playing in Melbourne compared with other international cities. He nods emphatically.
‘If you try to make a living as a freelance musician in London or New York, it’s not possible. They don’t have the spirit that we have here in Melbourne. Maybe it’s an Australian thing, but I think we love to support local things. I’m not just talking about the MSO and the Australian Chamber Orchestra; people here really do turn up to independent events. In Melbourne I’m surrounded by people who want my success, who want to be part of that success. For a classical freelance musician, Melbourne is the place to be.’
As we finish our coffees, I ask Hoang the inevitable question: does he have a favourite piece of music?
‘Definitely,’ he says. ‘The Mendelssohn Piano Trio Number Two.’ He explains that he was first introduced to Mendelssohn’s music by his piano teacher: ‘I remember the sparks of humour and delight in the music and it stuck with me for a long time. It’s so human. So full of beautiful melodies. So full of mystery and intrigue, mischief and romance. At the end of the day it always brings the house down. It’s definitely music for the soul.’
You can keep up-to-date with Hoang’s work at Trio Bresciani.