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Phoenix Story Concert Tour - The Age

Monday, 2 July 2007 - 10:04am

Twin cellists to bow together

These artists are at a level few achieve, writes Penelope Debelle.

Pei-Jee Ng, the older twin, plays an elegant French cello made in 1844 which suits his more restrained personal style. Pei-Sian, the younger by a few minutes, plays a more ebullient Italian cello made in 1764 and used by his university teacher to perform with the Australian String Quartet.

The Adelaide twins who study under a master cellist in Manchester and are about to launch their first Australian tour, can only afford to keep alive the mortgage on the cellos by paying off the monthly interest, but an investment in fine instruments is a necessary part of their so far outstanding careers.

It was obvious they were unusually gifted when their father Yeong Ng, a Chinese Malay with retail interests in Adelaide, heard them playing a rather lovely duet they had just composed on the family piano. They were aged five and had never studied music. Their older brother was already learning Suzuki method violin but the class was full, so when their mother ran into a cello teacher who had spaces left — the cello is a beautiful instrument but also a bulky one — they were both signed up.

“She was happy, the teacher was happy, only we didn’t choose it,” laughs Pei-Sian during a recent interview at the family home in Adelaide.

Now 22, their gift for cello has transcended every challenge put before them and they are emerging as international artists at a level few achieve, winning prizes awarded previously to charismatic cellists like Jacqueline du Pre and playing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

At the weekend they began an extensive tour in Adelaide that takes them to Melbourne and regional Victoria, Sydney, Canberra, parts of Queensland and Perth. The tour will premiere a work written for them by Elena Kats-Chernin and is a rare chance for audiences to hear them perform together and alone.

Yet they are still students. They studied under cellist Janis Laurs at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide. They graduated with first-class honours and won scholarships and a much sought-after chance to study under one of only a handful of world-class teachers — Ralph Kirshbaum at the Royal College of Music in Manchester. They will return soon to their Manchester flat for their fourth year of study under Kirshbaum who they see for a master-class every two weeks. “It is a very intense relationship and it has taken time to develop that,” says Pei-Jee. “We had to earn his love or whatever you want to call it. It is very intense so you cherish every moment you get to talk with him.”

Having mastered the most complex finger techniques, Pei-Sian and Pei-Jee are exploring the artistry of cello playing, which is the realm where they must make their mark. They are learning more than they thought was possible — Pei-Sian admits when he was younger he thought you learnt it all by the time you were 30 — and they commit to their cellos in an almost ecstatic state, eyes closed, expressing everything through their instruments.

There is something uncanny about twin boys, now twin adults, who have an equivalent, outstanding gift for the same musical instrument. Yet their essential natures are different. They are fraternal twins, different to look at (although with identical profiles), whose relationship is that of older and younger brother, a nuanced distinction given the minutes between their births.

“I’ve thought about this,” says Pei-Sian, who stayed up late the night before playing computer games. “It has a lot to do with the hierarchy system in all families, where the eldest in the family has more responsibilities. In that sense as I’m the youngest, even though it is just a few minutes, the responsibility has been less as I’ve been growing up.”

Pei-Jee is the serious one, with clearer career objectives and a tendency to worry more than his relatively care-free younger brother. He won the 2001 Symphony Australia Young Performer of the Year award but Pei-Sian has had his share of glory. This year he was named the most outstanding musician in the Commonwealth and won the $12,000 2007 Royal Over-Seas League Annual Music Competition in London, which opens doors to him on the European music scene.

Kirshbaum has pressed upon them the need to develop their careers separately. The Australian tour is a rare chance for them to enjoy their unique relationship as cellists and as twins.

“Playing together is a lot more fun. The trust in each other is so good and the foundation is so strong. We are so free when we perform together,” says Pei-Jee.

Penelope Debelle

Phoenix Story
Pei-Jee Ng