7 Dec 2023

Taking a walk on the dark side

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 7 December 2023
Henry Meng, pianist.

Composer and pianist Henry Meng Photo: Supplied/publisher

Henry Meng is listening to a recording of him playing his own piano piece, 'Watercolour No 3' which he wrote as a 15-year-old.

"Wow, I've come a long way," he tells RNZ Concert Host Bryan Crump, as they prepare for an interview.

He tells Crump and Three to Seven producer Robyn Jaquiery that he can hear he's nervous.

They can't.

Meng, who is now 19, has just won the 2023 Todd Young Composer Award for his six-minute orchestral work, 'Apparitions of the Crepuscule'.

That's 'crepuscule' as in another word for dusk, or as in the rays often given out by the sun from behind clouds or the horizon, in the evening twilight.

Boy standing on pavement at night with street lights (Photo by Craig Easton / Image Source / Image Source via AFP)

Photo: © Image Source, all rights reserved.

Crepuscular Rays

Some crepuscular rays photographed earlier Photo: Creative Commons

Those 'crepuscular rays' are often seen as a sign of hope, or a divine presence. Meng's crepuscular conception is very much a sinister one.

He remembers being afraid of the dark, and he remembers as a child often getting the feeling that someone was following him.

However, as a musician, Meng is definitely not floundering in the dark.

2023 Todd Young Composer Awards finalists (from left: Nicholas Graham Brownlie, Camryn Nel, Mallory Elmo, Henry Meng, Thorin Williams, Sai Natarajan and Chongwen “Wayne” Gao. (Not pictured: finalist Scarlett Peckham)

2023 Todd Young Composer Awards finalists (from left: Nicholas Graham Brownlie, Camryn Nel, Mallory Elmo, Henry Meng, Thorin Williams, Sai Natarajan and Chongwen “Wayne” Gao. (Not pictured: finalist Scarlett Peckham) Photo: Latitude Creative

His recognition as one of this country's most talented young composers follows a second placing in this year's National Concerto Competition (behind Yuzhang Wu) playing Rachmaninov's mighty third concerto. 

The three young pianists who are the finalists in the National Concerto Competition 2023,  Madeleine Xiao, Henry Meng, and Yuzhang Wu (all from Auckland).

The three finalists in the National Concerto Competition 2023 (L-R) Madeleine Xiao, Henry Meng, and Yuzhang Wu (all from Auckland). Photo: National Concerto Competition

For Meng, playing and composing go hand in hand. When he first came across a piano as a child, it was to play his own creations at the keyboard.

At first he wanted to emulate the writing of the likes of Mozart or Chopin. Rachmaninov was "way too modernistic". By the time he was in his mid-teens, his outlook had softened a little. His collection of pieces under the banner of 'Watercolours' owes a little to Debussy and Ravel.

"Next thing you'll be doing a Bartok," quips Crump.

Certainly, four years after writing 'Watercolours', Meng's imagination is not afraid to abandon tonality – at least for a few passages of his award-winning 'Apparitions of the Crepuscule'.

Above the recognition of the Todd Young Composer prize, the real reward for Meng (and the other seven composers involved in the 2023 competition) is having the piece played and recorded by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

NZSO conducted by Holly Mathieson

Getting your music played by these guys: priceless. Photo: Latitude Creative

It's hard to identify any particular influence in Meng's latest work, which is perhaps a reflection of how quickly his voice as a composer is developing, and the confidence with which he scored his work for a large orchestra – even if he wasn't sure he was getting it right at the time.

"I gave the orchestra hell!" he says.

He credits the NZSO and its conductor James Judd with getting the work over the line.

"It was like a fire being lit. Before, I'd heard it on the computer and it sounded like dead wood or something."

So has composing has taken over from piano playing for Meng?

He reckons he can do both.

"Even at the very pessimistic least ... it's another thing to do."

"My prime directive is to stay grounded and keep working."

We'll leave you with this video of Meng in 2020 playing Beethoven, Prokofiev and one of his own pieces.

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