Teen pianist to scale Rach 3

Tengku Irfan started playing with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra when he was 11.
Tengku Irfan started playing with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra when he was 11. PHOTO: OMM/TENGKU IRFAN

Some teens go into a frenzy over K-pop and Lady Gaga. Prodigy pianist Tengku Irfan prefers classic composers Stravinsky, Boulez and Beethoven on his music playlists.

The 18-year-old Malaysian composer and musician defends his choices with a laugh. "There are some people even crazier than I am, who listen only to Brahms," he says on the telephone from New York, where he is doing a double major in piano and composition at The Juilliard School.

He took the call straight after rehearsing Rachmaninoff's famed Piano Concerto No. 3. He will play the technically challenging piece on Friday with the Orchestra of the Music Makers at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

The Rachmaninoff-themed evening under the baton of Seow Yibin also includes four of the composer's Preludes reimagined by winners of the orchestra's inaugural orchestration contest.


  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: Friday, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $12 to $33from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Some say you can never practise enough for Rach 3, as it is known in musical circles. Pianists have been known to fumble during the roughly 45-minute work.

Irfan is unafraid. "How often do I get to play this piece?" he says. "It's not an easy piece, but as time goes on, you begin to discover there's such beauty you can find and experience."

He may well be up to the challenge, given that his rendition of Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra in 2015 was compared by Straits Times reviewer Chang Tou Liang to "the first coming of the 15-year-old Lang Lang in 1997".

Ask Irfan if comparisons with the world's best-known former prodigy scare him and he laughs again. "I really love what I'm doing. I want to know: 'What more can I do?'"

What more indeed? The oldest of three children, he started piano lessons at age seven because his parents thought it was a good idea - his father is a doctor and his mother is in the legal profession.

He began playing with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra when he was 11. Three years later, the famed New York Philharmonic commissioned him to write an orchestral composition, Keraian, which it premiered in New York.

He has played under the baton of esteemed Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi and been a guest artist at the Aspen Music Festival, a well-known boot camp for musicians. He is training to be a conductor at Juilliard as well and is thinking of writing a musical one day.

To destress, he binge-watches sitcoms such as Friends, The Big Bang Theory and, recently, Gilmore Girls. He also likes the Star Wars movies and thought the recent release Rogue One was amazing.

Musically, of course. "Composer John Williams has a really great sense of timing. Not just his ability to create themes we all remember, but it's also very hard to capture the musical structure of a film like he does."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 17, 2017, with the headline 'Teen pianist to scale Rach 3'. Subscribe