5: Trey Lee

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When Gramophone magazine called Trey Lee a miracle, he didn’t let it go to his head. ”I didn’t exactly blow it up into wallpaper and put it in my house,” the cellist says with a laugh, in reference to the review of his acclaimed and chart-topping 2006 album, Schumann-Mendelssohn-Chopin. He’s reached a stage in life where he knows that music is subjective, and what one person may love, another may loathe. ”Music is a very personal thing,” he explains. “I’ve finally come to realise there is no right and wrong.” So while he’s happy for the praise, it’s not what drives him.

We shouldn’t have been surprised then, to hear his very pragmatic response to his high ranking in this magazine. “If the rankings in music could translate to the same kind of rankings in tennis, for example, that’d be great,” he says. “But unfortunately music is not a sport. It’s fun to have these things, but not to take them too seriously.”

Instead, Lee – who has won major prizes at the 2004 International Antonio Janigro Cello Competition, New York’s Naumburg International Cello Competition, Helsinki’s International Paulo Cello Competition, and the Geneva International Music Competition – gets his kicks from performing live, in front of thousands of witnesses in a setting where he can’t take anything back (“That’s really the moment that you get to be most creative”).

His playing has been lauded for its deeply expressive qualities, something he attributes to taking a “complete approach” to the music rather than merely mechanically adhering to notes on a piece of paper. He talks about the art as a narrative, which changes subtly with each re-telling. “The shape of the music, the shape of the phrase, the harmonies that accompany you – they urge you in different directions every time.”

For a while, Lee shunted himself in a direction entirely separate to music. After graduating from Julliard, the esteemed performing arts conservatory, at a young age, he took five years off from cello to study economics at Harvard before taking on a job as a management consultant. Happily for the classical world, the estrangement wasn’t to last.
“I learned I was a lousy management consultant,” says Lee, who today splits his time between Berlin and Hong Kong. “I realised I was better at communicating through music than through other means.”

He’s used that special ability to dedicate himself to projects that reach beyond the standard concert fare. For instance, his stirring solos helped define Hong Kong-Taiwan film The Drummer, which was selected for the 2008 Sundance Festival, and last year he collaborated with the Chinese National Philharmonic to mark the 10th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover. In December, he’ll play a series of Finnish tangos at a private concert in Hong Kong.

It’s that lateral vision and creative impulse, as much as his brilliance with his instrument, that confirms him in Time Out’s top five.

Recommended listening:
Schumann-Mendelssohn-Chopin (2008)

20: Saturnino Tiamson
19: Nelson Hiu
18: Chochukmo
17: Colleen Lee
16: Wilson Tsang
15: Chet Lam
14: Ng Cheuk-yin
13: Peter Scherr
12: Denise Ho Wan-see (HOCC)
11: My Little Airport
9/10: Ted Lo and Eugene Pao
8: S.T. (Choi Sai-ho)
7: DP
6: Eason Chan
5: Trey Lee
4: at17
3: Aristo Sham
2: Jezrael Lucero
1: Anthony Wong

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