Alpin Hong is a different kind of pianist


Talking to Alpin Hong is like having a conversation with a friend: He’s funny, grounded, and quite entertaining. It’s easy to forget he played piano with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra at age 10.

Or that he received a master’s degree from Juilliard. He is clearly well-skilled on his instrument, but he still retains a little bit of self-proclaimed immaturity.

He will play at City High, 1900 Morningside Drive., at 7:30 p.m. Friday, performing pieces by Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin, among other composers.

“You know, like everybody else, my mom made me start [playing piano],” Hong said. “It was something I really loved. I loved performing, but I hated practicing. The idea of practicing for the rest of my life sounded like hell.”

He never envisioned that he would play piano for a living. When he was at UCLA as an undergraduate, he received a degree in history. And when he went to Julliard to get a master’s, he didn’t expect music to be a full-time pursuit.

“Oh, heck no,” he said. “I mean even in the midst of my master’s degree, I was never sure that it was a viable career choice.”

Hong’s first performance took place at 10, when he played with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra in Michigan, his home state.

“Oh, yeah, it was my first concerto performance,” he said. “I [was] a 10-year-old, and I was playing in Miller Auditorium, which I believe seats more than 4,000, and the audience was composed of mostly school kids. So they’re my age, they’re squirmy as you can imagine, and there are 4,000 of them. And for the first time I’m playing with 80 or 90 adults backing me up. It was the first time I played with an ensemble like that.”

To many, playing the piano at age 10 in front of thousands of people would be extraordinarily daunting, but for Hong, it was some of the most fun he has had. Easy to say when your career includes playing Carnegie Hall.

Music isn’t all about the venue for him, though he said playing the famous New York concert hall was definitely a highlight. However, he enjoys shows most when the audience enjoys them. He’s there to entertain.

“I’ve been to so many places in the U.S. and abroad that there’s no one particular place that sticks out,” he said. “What I always love is the surprise. Say, for example, I go to some place in the Texas Panhandle-thing, and I’m just like, ‘Oh, God who’s going to see a piano concert here?’ and I look out, and there’s an audience of 2,700 people, and they’re totally excited about it.”

Hong has released two CDs, and he is working on building repertoire for a third one, which he says will be more “independent” than his previous albums.

Piano is just one of Hong’s many interests. The 32-year old plays violin, sings, is an avid video-game player, and he would take watching college basketball over doing taxes any day, which isn’t the best quality when you’re trying to be more responsible, as Hong is attempting.

“I’m kind of immature in my extracurricular activities,” he said. “I love snowboarding and skateboarding. I’m learning how to do more responsible stuff. [I enjoy] what you would expect any 17- or 18-year-old to like.”

It’s clear from his electronic obsession that Hong isn’t a typical musician, or at least what many would expect from a supremely talented artist. At concerts, he said, he wants more feedback than a bit of nice clapping. He wants his audiences to be actively engaged.

“If you don’t like it, you can throw stuff,” he said. “If you really like it, you can stand up and holler and throw your hat on the stage.”

Hong has visited Iowa City before, and he said it was a fantastic experience.

“I’m really so thrilled to be able to come back,” he said. “The audience there rocks. The last time I was there, it was a party. I’m so happy to come back.”

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