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Phoenix Story Concert Tour - ArtsHub
Identical in Every Sense
Brothers Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian are a dynamic duo on the cello.
Louise Nunn explores a remarkable partnership.
Twin cellists Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian Ng have shared the spotlight since they were born. Delivered minutes apart, their lives were inextricably linked. But Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian have done something most twins haven’t. They’ve excelled in the same field and, as well as pursuing solo careers, the 22-year-olds perform on stage together as a duo.
“Some people call our partnership a gimmick but I’m happy to be a gimmick as long as I can back it up with something,” Pei-Sian says.
“It’s not like we planned to be twins. We are who we are. People can call it what they want.”
These days, people are calling their remarkable relationship a phenomenon. Those in the know say it’s impossible to rate the playing of one above the other.
It puts their decision to pursue a career as a duo on an unusually strong footing, according to the artistic administrator for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra , James Koehne, who has watched the brothers since Pei-Jee won the 2001 Symphony Australia Young Performer of the Year award.
“The first time I saw them was when they entered the Young Performer awards,” Koehne says.
“They came in one after the other. We’d just listened to 30 or 40 young players on a lot of different instruments, and they just stood out as the best of the lot.
“They just happened to be brothers, and they were both playing cello. It was a staggering thing.”
Now Pei-Sian has followed his brother’s success by winning the prestige 2007 Royal Over-Seas League Music Competition in London. Last month, he won the competition’s Gold Medal and first prize, worth $12,000, for an outstanding young musician from a Commonwealth country. He also took home the Tait Memorial Scholarship for an Australian musician.
Last week, Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian returned from Britain, where they are undertaking postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Music in Manchester with renowned cellist Ralph Kirshbaum. They’re in Adelaide preparing for a 16-concert national tour starting at Adelaide Town Hall on June 30.
Pei-Sian says he was “incredibly lucky” to win the Royal Over-Seas League competition, which has been won in the past by distinguished cellists such as Rohan de Saram (1955), Jacqueline du Pre (1961), Colin Carr (1974) and Australia’s Liwei Qin (1997). “It’s a foot in the door to the London music scene,” he says.
“I’ve already been offered a concert at Wigmore Hall.”
His success did not mean disappointment for Pei-Jee. The brothers avoid entering the same competitions. “If we’re in competitions together, it’s impossible to escape comparisons,” Pei-Sian says.
Scholarships to help cover the costs of studying abroad are different. Last week, both won scholarships worth $9500 each from Britain’s Hattori Foundation.
The Australian concert tour will give local audiences a chance to see why the brothers have been attracting so much attention.
Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian have been playing music together since they were five. “They understand and communicate with each other extremely naturally, so when they’re on stage together it’s like they are one,” Koehne says. “There are a few cellists who get together and form duos for a short period of time, but the duo that’s developed through their lifetime makes these boys unique.” He believes the brothers are “two of the best players Australia has produced in the past 20 years”. “They’ve been a big talking point in London because of who they are and what they do, and they’re starting to get invites to play with some important orchestras,” he says.
Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian were born in Sydney but moved to Adelaide at the age of one with their Chinese-Malaysian parents and an older brother. They started learning cello at primary school when their brother’s violin teacher was too busy to take on any more students.
They went on to study at Elder Conservatorium with well-known Adelaide cellist Janis Laurs, and before long started winning major awards and scholarships.
They’ve played with leading Australian and overseas orchestras. This year, they made their debuts with the Hong Kong Philharmonic, playing Finnish composer Kalevi Aho’s Double Cello Concerto, which they first performed with the ASO.
The ASO’s Estonian chief conductor, Arvo Volmer, was so impressed that he’s invited them to repeat the performance with the Oulu Symphony in Finland later this year.
Sitting in their parents’ eastern-suburbs house, Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian say that in many ways they’re very similar. There are, however, differences in personality.
Pei-Jee was born first. As a result, Pei-Sian says he has always been treated as the younger sibling and has always looked up to his brother.
However, he says he is definitely the tidier of the two, and much more relaxed than Pei-Jee. “How can that be if you’re tidier?” Pei-Jee says.
Their mother offers some clarification. “Pei-Jee wants to get things done,” she says cheerfully. “Pei-Sian thinks things will fall into place.” Pei-Jee: “My priorities are clearer.” Pei-Sian: “I’m more carefree.”
It’s a difference that was perhaps noted by Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin, who has composed a new cello duo for the brothers for their Australian tour. Called Phoenix Story, it has two movements, one slow, the other more upbeat. Pei-Sian thought of the title.
“In Chinese mythology, there’s the phoenix and the dragon,” he says. “At a basic level, the phoenix represents the female side, and the dragon is the male. It’s the balance, like Yin and Yang, and the relationship between phoenix and dragon can be as lovers or the complete opposite, mortal enemies.”
Pei-Jee and Pei-Sian say they loved learning cello together as children, and always enjoyed playing music with one another.
They share a flat with two other music students in Manchester. While they have their own friends outside music, they still spend a lot of time together. However, they no longer practise together like they did when they were young, because of the concentration required at their level of performance. “Music making is becoming a science for us now,” Pei-Jee says.
“It requires a higher level of listening . . . you need quiet.”
At this stage, there’s no way of knowing where music will lead them. “There’s always the problem of developing a solo career while we have this duo thing,” Pei-Sian says.
“How do we develop both at the same time, and not focus on one to the point where the other is lost?
“That’s a challenge for us, but at this early stage we’re happy to wait and see which one develops more quickly. But obviously we want to establish ourselves as individual artists. It’s very important.”
The duo will perform with Australian pianist David Tong at Adelaide Town Hall at 2.30pm on June 30.
22 June 2007