See Siang Wong, a Swiss-based classical pianist, is delighted that his latest album, “Cinema Classics: The Piano At The Movies”, is number one in the British classical music charts. He tells swissinfo.ch about his favourite films and why he’s not ashamed to “cross over” into other genres.
“I really stand behind the project and the music,” Wong tells me on the balcony of his sun-filled and Asian-inspired flat in Zurich West, a fashionable area in Switzerland’s largest city.
“Of course the idea has a commercial interest – crossover is very popular, as we can see by the charts – but this is just great music.”
Wong, born in Holland to Chinese parents from Singapore and Malaysia, is answering my cynical questions about the classical music industry with great patience and humour.
Now a youthful 37, Wong moved to Switzerland on a music scholarship aged 18 and is clearly passionate about music, showing me rare vinyl recordings he has picked up in Zurich’s second-hand shops – “although my record-player’s broken at the moment. I’m going to get it fixed this afternoon”.
Wong is a classical pianist, having recorded critically praised albums ranging from the big classical beasts such as Beethoven and Mozart to avant-garde and contemporary composers such as Emmanuel Nunes and Swiss composer Rudolf Kelterborn. In addition, he has taught piano literature and history at Zurich University of the Arts since 2002.
His latest album, however, released by Sony Classical last month, is his first step into the world of crossover, a musical no man’s land which usually involves classically trained singers performing pop or show tunes – think Andrea Bocelli or Katherine Jenkins. Audiences love it; critics hate it.
“Cinema Classics: The Piano At The Movies” is Wong playing, without accompaniment, 24 famous melodies, most of them from well-known films such as “The Piano” and “Amélie”.
“I’ve always played bits of film music in my free time to relax,” he explains. “I was recording a Schubert album and we had some time left over. So together with my engineer I recorded them almost in one take during a night recording session – for me this is the best period of the day to concentrate and to get inspiration. It was very spontaneous.”
The result is a beautifully played and very relaxing collection, and it’s easy to see why it has shot to the top of the official classical music charts in Britain.
It is not, however, an album of classical music that has featured in films – only four tracks are more than 100 years old: Debussy’s Clair de Lune (“Casino Royale”), Mendelssohn’s Song without Words (“Sophie’s Choice”), Mahler’s Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 (“Death in Venice”) and Pachelbel’s ubiquitous Canon (“Ordinary People” and many others).
The majority are “themes” by star film composers such as Ennio Morricone, Michael Nyman and Hans Zimmer from hits such as “Schindler’s List”, “Chocolat” and “The English Patient”.
“I love movies and I admire a lot of film music because a movie without music is not the same thing. Music adds to the emotional quality of the film,” Wong says. Indeed, certain pieces of classical music – not on the album – have become indelibly linked with certain films, for examples Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (“Apocalypse Now”), Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana (“Raging Bull”) and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, which is even known as “Elvira Madigan” after the 1967 film in which it featured heavily.
Wong says he personally likes independent and arthouse films more than big-budget productions, “but the movies on the album are all favourites of mine. ‘The Last Emperor’, for example, is extraordinary music and ‘The Piano’ by Michael Nyman too in its minimalistic simplicity. And there’s also ‘Cinema Paradiso’. I love emotional movies that can touch people.”
Some pieces lend themselves to the piano more than others. Whereas some were written for 88 keys – for example the themes to “The Piano”, “Amélie” and “Cinema Paradiso” – others required some serious arrangement.
Ryuichi Sakamoto’s original version of the main theme to “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” is basically synth pop and Mahler’s Adagietto is around 12 minutes of intense swirling strings, but Wong successfully turns both into serene gems.
“There’s also Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings [from “Platoon”], which is of course difficult to play on the piano because you don’t have the same tone length,” he explains. Notes on string instruments can of course be held indefinitely.
“Most of the transcriptions are the official versions, because I think it’s nicer to be authentic. At first I tried to do a sort of improvisation, but then I thought we wanted to just hear the very simple theme that we hear during the movie. I wanted to stay true to the original so that people can recognise it.”
Noting with a raised eyebrow that number five on the classical charts is the soundtrack to “Batman v Superman – Dawn of Justice” by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, I wonder what Wong would say to people who sniff at what passes for classical music nowadays.
“It’s interesting: I did another interview last week for a newspaper and they categorised the album under pop! It’s also been played on Radio Swiss Pop,” he smiles.
“Since it’s a bit crossover it’s in a sort of grey zone – it’s not classical but it’s also not pop. But I’m a classical pianist; if I were a pop pianist and I played these arrangements, you’d probably ask me the same question reversed: why is the album in the pop charts?!”
Wong is obviously aware that the crossover genre is big business – and getting bigger. “The big record companies have seen this, and a lot of the big orchestras are recording film soundtracks like The Lord of the Rings, which is extremely popular,” he says.
“I think this is a big chance for people who don’t really know classical music to get a taste for it, because it’s easier to have a sort of first encounter with film music than in a concert hall with an orchestra and music that they don’t really know.”
I tentatively ask whether he feels like a serious actor who appears in a blockbuster just to earn enough money to fund a true passion.
“Absolutely not. I can’t speak for actors, but I don’t think they’d appear in a crappy movie. I think appearing in a Bond film for example would be a big, big honour! I can’t believe any actor would turn that down,” he laughs.
“It’s a privilege in fact that I can still play this music without being defined as just a crossover artist. I really stand behind the project and the music. I’m absolutely not ashamed, because being an artist today you have to be broad and just play the music you love. Film music is absolutely a great genre and most of my colleagues would agree!”
See Siang Wong
See Siang Wong was born in the Netherlands in 1979.
He made his debut aged only 12 with the Dutch Radio Orchestra and has since performed in numerous renowned venues in more than 30 countries around the world, playing in concerts with top conductors including Pierre Boulez, Ralf Weikert and Howard Griffiths.
He moved to Switzerland in 1998 after being offered a scholarship at the Zurich University of the Arts.
In 2005, he signed a recording contract with Decca Records, for whom he released six albums (solo works of Chopin, Debussy, Mozart, Schumann, Beethoven and piano concertos of Haydn and Mozart),
In 2012, he signed a new contract with RCA Records / Sony Classical, and a first Schubert album was released December 2012.
His interest in contemporary music has led to collaborations with leading composers such as Emmanuel Nunes, Marco Stroppa, James Dillon and Rudolf Kelterborn. He initiated the project ‘Swiss Piano’ which promotes the creation of new piano compositions by Swiss composers.
See Siang Wong has taught at the Zurich University of the Arts since 2002, and from 2006-2008 he was a guest professor at the University of Arts Lucerne.
What is your favourite piece of film music? Let us know.