The extremely talented winner of the Kendall National Violin Competition, James Dong has bright future ahead of him. At just 19 years of age, James is used to performing under pressure and hopes one day to pass on his musical knowledge to others. You can see James perform at the Kendall School of Arts this month …
Hi James. Whereabouts do you call home?
I was born in Melbourne, where I received all my initial musical training. In 2011, I moved up to Sydney to study, but Melbourne will always be home.
When were you first introduced to the violin, and how old were you when you began to play?
I began learning the piano at age 5, and my father decided that I should also take up the violin, since he had aspirations for me to become a conductor one day. Hence in later years, I also took up the saxophone and drums.
Where do you currently study music, and who are your teachers?
I am currently studying under Professor Ole Bohn at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I first met him in the 2010 KNVC, where he was a jury member and although I didn’t win, I think he liked the way I played. My teacher then, Robert Wakely, was very keen for me to learn under Ole and really helped me a lot with my audition preparation for Sydney Conservatorium.
Describe your experience in the Kendall National Violin Competition recently. What pieces did you play, and how tough was the competition?
I played the Adagio and Fuga from Bach’s C major solo sonata, Wilfred Lehman’s Soliloquy, the Strauss violin sonata, and the Introduction and Tarantella by Sarasate. My repertoire for the semifinals was actually quite different, even though it didn’t need to be, because this time at KNVC I wanted to show as much of me as possible to the judges.
I don’t think the competition has even been tougher or more daunting for me. In 2010 I was the youngest competitor at age 17; however only 2 years later I am the oldest competitor by far! There is a lot of young talent in Australia, especially Sydney, and it was a new experience for me to be competing with the cream of the crop.
How did you feel when you were told you’d won the competition?
Relieved! This was my third time trying out at the KNVC, and the third time did indeed prove to be a charm. In the past I had participated in a lot of string and violin competitions and was always taking 2nd place or being a finalist. By the age of 19 and with the rest of the world achieving wonders at age 11, I was beginning to feel lost. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong and why I could never take home the grand prize.
I feel that in the last two years my teacher, Ole Bohn, has worked really hard to bring out the best in me. The learning environment in Sydney Con has also contributed to my growth as a musician. Playing amongst some of the best players in Australia and watching them in performance really inspired me and motivated me to work harder than ever.
Who are some of your favourite composers, and why do you admire them?
Bach is right at the top for me. He has been my silent instructor since I started my musical studies, teaching me to figure out the answers as well as the questions in a piece of music. His music can be sophisticated, romantic, and pure; it really is multifaceted.
In recent years I have begun to appreciate Schubert’s music. Perhaps this came late to me because all his major works for violin are very mature and not really found in the exam syllabus; in fact, I had never even heard a Schubert violin piece until I was 18! I will be playing his Rondo in B minor in the upcoming concerts in Nambucca Heads and Kendall. This piece really exemplifies his harmonic genius; the unexpected and fast paced modulations were radical and electrifying in his day and still are 200 years later.
I hear you’re interested in composing as well. Tell us about some of the pieces you’ve written – are they just for strings, or full orchestral works – and have they achieved any recognition in musical circles?
I am not very active in composition now, but I have written a few pieces, all for piano. I don’t have a true style in composition, because I think that it is important to have a firm grasp of the basics before moving on. I spend a lot of time on one composition, sometimes dwelling on an idea for up to two years. All my compositions have won 1st place in regional competitions, but I don’t think I will take it further just yet, as competitions these days specifically want you to be original …
What are your future aspirations – where would you like to see your musical talent take you?
I aspire to become a professor in a well known music institution, just like my teacher. I think it would be a very rewarding experience, and I am thankful to have teachers like Ole who don’t withhold anything from their musical knowledge to their students.
What do you feel it takes to be an accomplished violinist?
To me, it simply boils down to having good parents who ingrain good habits into you. I am fortunate that my parents were strict, but not over controlling. Going out a lot with friends and listening to popular music wasn’t forbidden, but was definitely frowned upon. Not enough practice would result in the banning of my Gameboy (which I wish never existed, because goodness knows how many hours I wasted playing that damn thing!)
I soon learnt the difference between right and wrong, and I think that’s what has gotten me this far. Of course, I might have achieved more had my parents stopped all forms of education apart from music and forced me to practice 8 hours a day, but is that really what music is about?
You’re giving two recitals with the talented piano accompanist Jeanell Carrigan in Nambucca Heads (Entertainment Centre) and Kendall (School of Arts) on March 23 and 24 respectively. How much are you looking forward to these performances?
I am really honoured to give these two recitals with Jeanell. Recitals like these are the true prizes in competitions; there is so much to look forward to, so much to prepare, and so much music for everyone to enjoy.
Since I commenced my studies in Sydney, I have only ever played with Jeanell; she really is one of the best in Australia. Furthermore, her partnership with Goetz Richter in duo playing really inspires me to play better.
Thanks James. Interview by Jo Atkins.
This article can be found in issue 88 of Greater Port Macquarie Focus