While most of us were preoccupied with toys at 15-months old Van-Anh Nguyen was learning the piano. By four, Van-Anh was accepted into the Young Artists Program for gifted and talented musicians at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. By twelve, she became one of the youngest of her generation to get a Licentiate Diploma in Music. And by 2017, the concert pianist and composer had released six albums of classical-crossover music. Then, earlier this year, she signed to Universal Music/Decca. She’ll release her first album on the label in January.
The artist, born to refugee parents who were both musicians, and raised in Sydney, returns often to play events in Vietnam. We caught up with her at the rehearsals for her latest show where she stars in an evening celebrating 45-years of Australia-Vietnam relations playing Rachmaninov’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” with the City Ballet Symphony and Opera’s orchestra.
You identify as Australian-Vietnamese. How would you describe your relationship to Vietnam? And how “Vietnamese” was your childhood?
I was born in Australia and grew up in an area with hardly any Asians. In fact, I was the only Vietnamese person in my grade at school. However, at home, we only spoke Vietnamese. We ate Vietnamese food cooked by my parents two or three times a week. And we even upheld customs like Tet.
Now, I love coming back to Vietnam. It gives me a sense of connecting with my roots and heritage, and I get to eat more Vietnamese food…
How forceful were your parents in wanting you to pursue a music career?
I was very lucky. I was never forced to follow the path of music. Mum is an opera singer and Dad is a classical guitarist so entering the world of music came from a very organic and natural place.
At four, you were accepted into a gifted musicians program. What do you feel is the best way to encourage children to play music?
I fully understand why there is “tiger parenting.” Most Asian parents want to create financial stability for their children. However, personally, I think parents have to have a deep love for music while also nurturing children to share that love.
I do believe children should play music and be exposed to music as young as possible. I’ve heard that playing Mozart whilst you’re pregnant is really good for kids! I honestly think three to four years old is ideal. Kids are like sponges—they just soak up information given to them. Also, learning music means children are already developing patience, mathematical skills, and a sense of order and routine, which will all benefit them later in life.
What would you play your child for the best nurturing experience? What music would you avoid?
Everything from Mozart through to Chopin through to Herbie Hancock through to The Beatles and Ariana Grande. Versatility is key. But I don’t think I would play heavy metal…or music that has any profanity.
What’s the first music you bought or heard that left an impression on you as a child?
The first song that I remember was Schubert’s Piano Quintet “The Trout.” My parents played it on vinyl at home all the time. They remind me that I was able to sing every single part of it when I was a child. As for the first CD I purchased, I think it was something really non-classical—probably Samantha Mumba’s “Gotta Tell You” in 2000!
How important is it to go beyond the classical performance model? What’s your most memorable show so far?
The social side of performance is important to me—engaging with the audience is so important, whether on social media or meeting and greeting them after the concert. Visuals are also important to me. And fashion has always been a personal passion of mine. I love dressing up to reflect my mood.
My most memorable show was probably a concert I did in Verona, Italy. I played across from the Arena in a historical building on a beautiful Fazioli piano. I could feel the culture and history as I played. Other than that, it’s always awesome playing on home turf at the Sydney Opera House.
And where’s the strangest place you’ve played?
I guess playing on cruise ships is kind of weird. When the sea is really rough, they have to anchor the piano down… but they don’t anchor you or your seat down. One time, on the Tasman Sea, we went through a storm so strong the curtains were swinging. I threw up ten minutes before the show. Then I performed for 45-minutes. But immediately after I ran off stage and threw up again.
What’s your routine to prepare yourself for a concert?
I always get a manicure a few days before the show. Then on the day, I go into “show day” mode. I used to always listen to Beyonce’s “Love On Top” because she absolutely nails five key changes, but now it’s any one of a number of upbeat non-classical songs. Also, I hate sitting by myself in the dressing room. I start over-thinking things, so I usually only turn up to the theater or concert hall about half an hour before the show.
Are there any venues you still dream of playing? And are there any dream collaborators you’d like to work with?
The list is endless here. There’s Carnegie Hall, of course. I’d also like to play on a plane if they can get the piano aboard. There’s the Royal Albert Hall. And the Grammys. And I would love to record with John Legend one day.
How can classical music connect with a young audience?
Classical music requires concentration and analysis, two things relevant to the lives of young people. But it needs to be presented in an approachable way. The concert experience is important too. Modern concerts should be multi-sensory experiences.
Your track “Children” is a Robert Miles cover. How influential are other forms of music on you? Who are your favorite artists right now?
Right now, I’m obsessed with Bruno Major—not to be confused with Bruno Mars—who is a soulful artist, that reminds me of Sam Smith who he has worked with extensively. Then there’s PJ Morton, who has a very raw style too with incredible instrumentation and a strong gospel influence.
Are there any musicians who have passed away that you’d like to bring back for a concert with you?
Amy Winehouse. She had a recklessness and rawness about her that I absolutely loved. She also used lots of live instrumentation in her recordings which I find rare in pop music—although people like Bruno Mars are bringing that back again.
Which are your favorite Vietnamese dishes, and where are your favorite spots to eat them when you’re back here?
I love street food, and I love goi du du kho bo. I could eat pho all day every day. But if I’m on a desert island and can only have one dish for the rest of my life, it would be goi cuon tom thit.
As for my favorite places to eat, there’s Quan Bui, Cuc Gach, and the pho at MGallery is pretty incredible.
Who should we speak with next?
There’s the chef, Luke Nguyen—who I’m sure you know. He runs Grain cooking school in Saigon, and he’s executive chef and founder of Vietnam House in the historic building at 93 to 97 Dong Khoi. I’d also suggest you talk to Khoa Do, a film producer whose brother is the comedian Anh Do.