Copious Notes

Philharmonic piano soloist also composes and conducts. And he’s only 20.

Tengku Irfan performed with the Lexington Philharmonic Nov. 16.
Tengku Irfan performed with the Lexington Philharmonic Nov. 16.

When Tengku Irfan takes the stage with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra Friday night, we will only be seeing a third of his formidable talent.

His official role in this concert will be piano soloist in a performance of Maurice Ravel’s jazzy “Piano Concerto in G Major.” But the Malaysian musician also enjoys a burgeoning career as a composer and conductor. And he’s doing all of this at the age of 20.

It seems an appropriate night for students in the University of Kentucky College of Communication’s event planning course to promote in their annual partnership with the Philharmonic. In the promotion to UK and other area students, they are encouraged to take advantage of $11 tickets to the concert that will feature an artist right around their age.

Unlike many students, Irfan didn’t seem to struggle much with what he wanted to do with his life.

At age 6, when he was growing up in Malaysia, Irfan’s father bought him a simple Yamaha digital keyboard. He took to it right away, initially locking in on a love for the music of Chopin. When he was 11, he made his orchestral debut playing Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto” with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, improvising his own cadenzas.

“Composition really came from improvising,” Irfan said in an interview from the Charlotte, N.C. airport, where he was waiting on a delayed flight to Lexington, Wednesday. “I had to play pieces my teacher required, but sometimes I got a bit bored, and I’d sight read other pieces, and sometimes I just like to fool around and do stuff. Then it sometimes got more serious, and I’d start composing.”

At age 14, he had one of his compositions performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at one of its Young People’s Concerts, which really seems appropriate, considering that series was popularized by another pianist, composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein. Not surprisingly, Irfan is a fan of the 20th century American music icon.

“What I do — the struggle and excitement of the pieces — I somehow I understand what he is going through,” Irfan says of Bernstein. “I don’t know how he juggled all three facets of his work while being sharp at all three of them. And he was also a great educator, promoting education on top of all the professional obligations that he had to do.”

Coming to Lexington, Irfan is playing the music of another 20th century pianist and composer, Ravel.

“I really like it, but somehow, I never thought of learning the piece,” Irfan says of the “Piano Concerto in G.” “But through this engagement, I thought of it as a great honor to learn a great 20th century piece.”

One of the signatures of the work is jazz, which had the composer under its spell while he was traveling in America.

“In this piece, Ravel is able to combine those with his own orchestration and language. That’s what makes this piece really something. It’s a jazz-influenced piece, but it’s still quintessential Ravel.”

Tengku Irfan conducting the Malaysian Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. Jack Yam

The next time we see Irfan, who knows what he will be doing — waving the baton or world premiering a new work ... or dazzling us with another piano performance. The classical music world tends to encourage musicians to specialize in one field, but Irfan may prove hard to pin down.

“I still don’t know if I am going to do all three or maybe just focus on one and do the other two on the side,“ Irfan said.


Lexington Philharmonic

What: Conductor Scott Terrell welcomes piano soloist Tengku Irfan in a program of music by Joan Tower, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Maurice Ravel and Aaron Copland.

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16

Where: Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.

Tickets: $25-$75; $11 students at the door or online

Call: 859-233-4226