Up close with chamber musician Daniel Tong

Pianist chats to Daniel Tong ahead of the brand new four-day Birmingham International Piano Chamber Music Festival.


A new chamber music festival – with the piano at the centre – will take place in Birmingham later this month (20-23 November). It’s the brainchild of Daniel Tong, Head of Piano Chamber Music at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, who feels it’s time to put the piano in the chamber music spotlight. The Birmingham International Piano Chamber Music Festival includes a competition, evening recitals by the distinguished jury members, masterclasses and showcases by gifted Conservatoire students, and the opening and closing concerts will be live-streamed by Classic FM.



1. You’ve said that you feel the piano has been somewhat undervalued as an instrument in chamber music.  Why do you think that is?

I think this began with the cult of the soloist and a number of unrealistic, though often wonderful, recordings featuring famous instrumentalists (often violinists) in the twentieth century. I still often receive emails telling me about the next upcoming concert from some star fiddler or other, where the pianist isn't mentioned, despite a programme of Brahms or Fauré duo sonatas. But really I was rather drawing attention to the lack of events where piano chamber music shines. This is something that our festival aims to put right.



2. How did you decide on the composition of the festival?

The Young Artists Recitals and masterclasses were always the driving force behind the event, but the concerts each evening by our superb line-up of established artists make a mouth-watering prospect.  Their programmes are drawn together by three musical strands, but the young artists chose their own repertoire.



3. How did you select the competition entrants?

We staged preliminary auditions where we heard all applicants. Those from abroad who could not attend in person were allowed to send unedited video. The jury used a blind scoring system. The eight groups who are travelling to Birmingham are of a fabulously high standard of artistry.



4. Many would think of chamber music as involving three or more players. You’ve included duos within the definition. What is your thinking behind this? Will it make judging more difficult?

Judging will be difficult in any case, especially if the preliminary rounds are anything to go by. I have always believed that a duo is true chamber music, and why not? The two instruments interact in equal partnership. This rather returns us to the first answer above! 



5. Chamber music with piano is a unique blend of instruments – who do you feel writes best for this combination and why?

Many of the greatest chamber composers were pianists and this shows. Beethoven often asks the instruments to deny their natural characteristics in order to achieve unity, whereas Dvořák creates wonders from opposing sound colours and textures. Mendelssohn manages it effortlessly.



6. What are you most looking forward to during the festival?

The buzz that comes when many people come together with a shared passion. Each day there will be chamber music dawn 'til dusk and I am looking forward to listening to masterclasses and hearing the young musicians play, as well as collaborating with immensely inspiring friends and colleagues. 



7. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Our magnificent new Conservatoire building in Birmingham is a friendly place where anyone is welcome. Concerts are all affordable and the festival is as collegiate as can be; all competitors play in classes, all jury members will perform as part of the festival. Come along or join us on the live streams, and celebrate this wonderful, timeless music with us.


The Birmingham International Piano Chamber Music Festival is at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire from Tuesday 20 – Friday 23 November.  For details visit www.bcu.ac.uk/pianochamberfest18 or call 0121 331 5901.