How classical music can stay relevant, according to a pianist

Striking a chord


By Marissa Chin

Images: @kajengwong / Instagram | @musiclabhk / Instagram | Chuttersnap / Unsplash
How classical music can stay relevant, according to a pianist

Is classical music a thing of the past? While Mozart, Bach, and Tchaikovsky are heralded as musical prodigies, classical music has always been considered a niche interest to the general public. Unlike mainstream pop music, it’s not something that gets radio plays (unless artists sample it into more modern interpretations, more on this later) nor is it as digestible as your Taylor Swift or Shawn Mendes. Historically performed for the upper class society, its reputation of being elitist and exclusive certainly doesn’t help.

buro malaysia classical music
Image: Manuel Nageli / Unsplash

With short-form content platforms such as TikTok and Instagram dictating music trends and the ever-dwindling attention span of audiences, the competition for your ears and eyeballs is fierce—and classical music and its traditions might get left behind in the race. Is it possible for classical music to survive in a contemporary society that demands instant gratification?

buro malaysia classical music
Image: Charlotte in White

We sat down with classical pianist Wong Kajeng to find out. Raised in Hong Kong and born to Malaysian parents, the artist is known for his originality and exceptional musicianship, winning at the Alaksa International Piano E-Competition in 2018 and the Maria Canals International Piano Competition in 2019. He has also received a commendation from the Hong Kong government and was selected to represent Hong Kong at international platforms in Singapore, Taipei, China, and Spain.

With the start of his own classical music collective, Music Lab, in Hong Kong and his frequent travels back to Malaysia, Wong has a unique perspective on the classical music movement in Asia and what goes on behind the curtains. Ahead, find out his honest thoughts on how classical music can continue to thrive in modern society. 


buro malaysia classical music


What do you think about the classical music scene in Malaysia and Asia as a whole?

WKJ:  “I think Asia is experiencing a boom in classical music. There is a thirst for learning and culture which I believe is one of the best traits of being Asian [laughs]. I see the Malaysian classical music community as very similar to those in Hong Kong and China. In my opinion, this innate thirst, curiosity and intelligence are what make Asian musicians or students great and special in learning classical music.

“Hong Kong, like Malaysia, is multicultural and classical music is a big part of the education here. Growing up, there were a lot of great teachers and competitions were frequently held. Because of this, it fostered an exciting environment to learn about classical music, and it has been a thrilling experience growing up in Hong Kong with a community of like-minded artists. Education is important in first sowing the seeds of interest and curiosity.”


buro malaysia classical music


What’s the best part of being a classical musician for you?

WKJ: “ Over the last 10 years, I performed a majority of the time in Hong Kong and it wasn’t until things started opening up after Covid that I was able to perform a lot more abroad. For me, it’s not so much the act of playing music but also being able to have a conversation with my audience who come from different cultures and backgrounds through my music. It’s this cultural exchange with people that, for me, is the most interesting part.”


What was your inspiration behind starting Music Lab?

WKJ: “In Hong Kong, I founded Music Lab to be a creative hub where concerts of unconventional forms and ideas are welcome. Every year, we run the Music Lab Festival and this year, it’s being held from May to July. It’s a total of six concerts of not just classical music but also genres such as original jazz and even house party music.


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A post shared by KaJeng Wong 黃家正 (@kajengwong)

“This is where we gather and create the collective branding of Hong Kong artists. I hope that with Music Lab, we are able to forge a voice as artists from Hong Kong and bring our programmes abroad, even beyond our festival period.”


Classical music exudes this image of tradition, elegance and exclusivity. In saying that, should classical music adapt to music’s ever-shifting landscape or stay true to its form?

WKJ: “I think it is important to realise and define what stays in classical music and what can be adapted. For me, what stays in classical music is its depth of emotionality and how it speaks to the human soul. I certainly do not think that classical music is superior to any other genre. Therefore, I feel that it’s important  for classical music or any musician for that matter to evolve with the current society. 

“Why do we see change as a bad thing? Changing or adapting classical music can work sometimes even if you lose some of its substance. Personally, I’m always finding the right balance for this too. There are times you have to insist and make a strong stand but there are occasions where you also have to evolve and compromise. For me, that’s how great art survives and continues.”


From K-pop to hip-hop, many artists sample classical music in their work. What is your stance on this?

WKJ: “I don’t want to offend anyone but some classical musicians think that by sampling music into other genres, it is considered blasphemy or sacrilegious. I don’t think so. By paraphrasing Turkish March by Mozart into something else, it doesn’t really change the essence of Mozart. It’s just borrowing the materials to create another piece of art and what’s wrong with that? 

Image: Marius Masalar / Unsplash

“Does it mean that it is a disrespect towards Mozart? I don’t think so. It is a tribute, a homage to Mozart. So when I hear that a classical piece has been rearranged for a movie or whatever else, why does it not work? Why is it sacrilegious? If we think classical music must retain its original form, then we limit how human minds evolve, develop and adapt to music and time. To me, that’s a detriment to art.”


How do you define success as a classical musician?

WKJ: “You know, I think success is very subjective and it’s uncountable. To me, each artist will have their definition of success. It’s a question that I have asked myself many times as well. What do I actually want to achieve? What do I want to do with the talent or the music that I play? I think by answering the right questions, we will come to the right answers. 


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