Phoenix Story Concert Tour - Brisbane Courier Mail
It’s 2001 and the second round of competition for Symphony Australia’s elite Young Performers Award is under way.
The national judging panel is already impressed by the Queensland talent, but nothing can prepare them for what happens when a 16-year-old cellist strolls in to Brisbane’s Ferry Rd Studios of The Queensland Orchestra and, with blissful indifference, launches into a jaw-dropping interpretation of Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto.
It’s world-class playing and at the end of it, the judges are still shaking their heads in disbelief when the next contestant enters, the twin of the first, also a cellist, and he, too, gives a blistering concerto performance.
The wider world thus heard the phenomenon of Pei-Jee Ng and his brother Pei-Sian, the twin Adelaide cellists who had just moved away from home for the first time to study with Marcus Stocker at the Queensland Conservatorium.
Musically it seemed impossible to separate them, but in the end, in front of a national television and radio audience, it was Pei-Jee, the elder of the two by a few seconds, who won the competition final.
“That YPA competition really helped give me exposure and acknowledgment,” Pei-Jee says now, six years later, as he and his brother set out on a national concert tour that brings them to Queensland next week to the venue where they first made their name.
“After that victory, Symphony Australia helped set up concerts for me with several Australian orchestras. It was brilliant.”
The twins returned to Adelaide to complete their Australian education, but while Pei-Jee’s career blossomed and both twins received multiple further awards, Pei-Sian always seemed to play second fiddle to his competition-winning brother. It brought pressure on both of them.
“I became more uptight and serious because of the pressure of having won the Young Performers Award,” Pei-Jee says. “I dealt with insecurities caused by having to keep my performance level up and rising higher still to match the kinds of concerts I was getting. “Pei-Sian, on the other hand, was working hard towards other competitions and dealing with internal pressure of his own caused by the fact that I was getting things that he would have liked.”
But all that was about to change, and no one could have been more delighted than Pei-Jee Ng when this year, his younger brother Pei-Sian won the Gold Medal at the Royal Overseas Award in London, giving him the coveted title of Commonwealth Musician of the Year.
“It’s opening up concerts for him in Wigmore Hall and Royal Festival Hall next year,” Pei-Jee says. “It’s incredible, and we’re kind of matched now – he’s thrilled and as a family we’re all very happy for him, because it’s been a long time coming and he’s thoroughly deserved it.”
Now, they’ve decided that their days of competing against one another are over. “It causes too much pressure at home,” Pei-Jee says. “It’s much more supportive if we simply enter cello competitions without each other and just look on as the other does it.”
A number of scholarship authorities have been happy to fund them jointly for further studies over the past four years with Ralph Kirshbaum at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.
Working with the renowned British cellist has had a profound impact on the 22-year-old Australians, and they’ll return in October to work with him for another year.
“As a teacher he really makes you listen to yourself, to look at the score and to develop real integrity as a musician,” says Pei-Jee. “He’s a musician’s musician.”
On the current tour, they’re joined by pianist David Tong, himself a multi-competition winner, with whom they’ve formed a bond.
They’re particularly enjoying playing a new piece composed for them by Elena Kats-Chernin. “It really appeals to audiences, maybe because it’s very like Australia itself. It has this rock-music style, with oriental touches, and all sorts of other influences coming together, which is basically what our culture is now.”
So with their international careers now fully established, and their current Australian tour taking them all over the country, there’s only one problem left for them to face.
“We have trouble finding food after concerts, because in some of these regional towns there’s nothing open after 10pm.
“It’s an adventure!”