SOTY 2016: Performing Artist Rachel Lam finds a new take on classical music

Talented multi-instrumentalist Rachel Lam spoke to us about her greatest source of musical inspiration

Nicola Chan |

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Rachel Lam (second from right) was the winner of the Student of the Year (SOTY) 2016 Performing Artist.

Many of us have probably tried listening to classical music to improve our mood while studying, or to relax after a long school day. But for Student of the Year (SOTY) 2016 Performing Artist Rachel Lam Chi-tung, it is a time-travelling experience that brings back sweet childhood memories.

The 16-year-old from St Paul’s Convent School (Secondary) has clicked with the piano since her mother taught her a few notes as a toddler. “I thought it was a magical instrument,” said Rachel, who is also an accomplished cellist.

Believing that she has “an inherent love for classical music”, Rachel’s talent became evident when she was admitted to the Junior Music Programme of Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in Primary Three.

Her biggest source of motivation comes from her piano teacher and role model, Julie Kuok Pun-man.

“She always tells me stories about her journey as a pianist . Her persistence in finding a career in music has been inspiring,” Rachel said, adding that she’s been studying with Kuok for nine years.

Kuok’s influence can even be seen in the piece Rachel performed at the SOTY competition, Lost – Hope – Vibrancy, a medley which they came up with together.

“We [the contestants] were required to think of a performance which brought out the theme ‘The Future in Our Hands’,” Rachel explained. “I was struggling with such a broad topic, and was waiting for inspiration ... until I heard my teacher’s latest work, Alice in Wonderland, composed based on the famous story of the same name.”

Rachel felt the atonal nature and the scattered clashing notes were symbolic of Hong Kong’s chaotic political situation. So, she performed Kuok’s composition as the Lost part of her medley.

Towards the end of the piece, there are some staccato chords. They could be interpreted as representing Alice’s imminent victory over her captors. They “symbolise the entrance of young future leaders, and echo the belief of SOTY that ‘we can make the city a better place’.”

Moving to Hope, Rachel chose Novelette, by French pianist Francis Poulenc. She said the piece combines “the rich and harmonious notes of the left hand” with “the high pitched notes on the right”. The piece was written in C major, which is a scale known for being upbeat and positive.

“The blending of these elements suggests there is hope if the young future leaders can consider contrasting voices, stay positive, and take responsibility for the future of Hong Kong,” Rachel explained.

For the final piece, she played Étude Op. 10, No. 5 composed by her favourite musician – Frédéric Chopin.

She is a cellist, but the piano was her first instrument.
Photo: Nicola Chan/SCMP

“The F# major key demonstrates the vibrancy and prosperity of the future Hong Kong,” she said.

“With a clear vision in mind, the city’s youth can look to and work towards a vibrant future together.”

While her objective was to transport listeners from the modern world to the 19th century, she didn’t expect this idea to be fully appreciated by the judges. However, they told her they found her idea “refreshing”.

“SOTY gave me the opportunity to flex my creative muscles and really try something new and innovative.” Rachel said graciously.

She had some advice for young aspiring musicians: “Don’t be afraid to try something new just because no one has done it before, or because it is ‘out of the norm’. Musical development, from classicism to romanticism, would not be possible without musicians like Ludwig van Beethoven, who would always experiment and think outside the box.”

Rachel is unsure whether music will be her sole career pursuit, but she has no doubt that it will always be a huge part of her life.

“I will always look to bring joy to others by performing music.”

Edited by Ben Young