When Kenric Tam first walks onscreen in one of the many clips of his performances on YouTube, he seems calm and cool in his suit and tails. Then he begins to play, his body rolling and shaking to the music, his eyebrows shooting up and down his forehead to the rhythm of the music, as his fingers tinkle the keys and he, once again, puts the audience under his spell.
Tam, 20, has been awing classical music fans and critics alike with his piano skills since he was a teen. He won the Mondavi Center’s Young Artists Competition Award in 2007, and will grace the stage once again with his presence on Saturday and Sunday.
Tam began playing piano at a very early age thanks to the influence of his sister.
“My sister’s six years older than I and I sort of wanted to do what she was doing at the time, so I asked my parents for lessons,” Tam said.
Tam played casually throughout his childhood, often practicing no more than half an hour a day. It wasn’t until high school that his dedication and love for playing really began.
“In high school I started getting more interested in it. I had matured a bit and started to understand more how classical music works and how things are put together. At that point in life my experience in music grew much more rapidly and I got much more serious.”
It was at the age of 16 that Tam first broke into the concert world, debuting with the world-renowned Los Angeles Philharmonic at the famed Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2006. The experience proved to be a turning point.
“It was the first time I played with a major professional symphony orchestra with musicians of a very high caliber, probably some of the best in the U.S or the world. The way they played and the way they responded to how I played was unique, and it was definitely an important experience that pushed my interests forward.”
Since his debut, Tam has gone on to win a number of prestigious national and international piano competitions, perform with a host of orchestras throughout the world, and has been awarded the Presidential Scholar by former President Bush. He has even been on television as the only featured pianist on the HBO music documentary “MasterClass.”
According to Tam’s critics, what makes him a unique artist is the amount of pure emotion that can be heard in his sound. Tam’s former high school piano teacher, Hans Boepple, and his current teacher at the New England Conservatory, Wha Kyung Byun agree that this is his strength.
“Seventy-five percent of playing the piano is feeling it and Kenric seems to be born with it. He’s a musical channel, he lives and breathes it, he feels music intensely. It’s pretty obvious when watching him that something special is happening,” Boepple said.
According to Byun, it is this emotional quality to his music that makes Tam so compelling and successful a performer.
“He’s very poetic. He’s not an ordinary pianist, he is someone who has his own way to express himself and other people hear that,” Byun said.
For Tam, it is this challenge and this desire to bring emotion to the music that he loves about playing the piano.
“It’s a little bit cliché but there’s a balance between heart and brain, the intellectual involvement to play the music but also not being so calculated all the time and having the passionate and emotional side also. It’s a pretty strong intellectual challenge,” he said.
Tam, though, is no stranger to intellectual challenges. He is currently pursuing a double major in human development and regenerative biology at Harvard University. He will also obtain his master’s degree from the New England Conservatory of Music, where he practices piano two to four hours a day.
For Tam, his studies at Harvard provide an ideal back-up career.
“Based on how that year [at New England Conservatory] goes and how my music career is going then I will decide what my future plans are of being a pianist and studying music or going to medical school. I would hope so definitely to be a professional piano player, but it’s definitely a hard career choice. The demand is much lower because people don’t listen to classical music as much, so I have something to fall back on.”
Byun has no worries that Tam will succeed in whatever he chooses to do with his future career.
“I think piano helps him do other things better, and those subjects also make him push his piano playing much more, and I think he will soon find what he really wants to dedicate his life to. I think because of piano playing he will do whatever he does very well.”
Although Tam’s future as a professional pianist remains unsure, there is, according to Boepple, one thing we can be sure of.
“Kenric has the gifts of making an exquisite sound, and moving that music and sound in a forward and visceral way that is beautiful and breathtaking to watch.”
Student tickets for Tam’s concert are selling for $17.50 and can be bought at the Mondavi box office or on the center’s website.
ANNETA KONSTANTANIDES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.