Sam Hong was stirring up some fried rice when his phone buzzed.
His piano trio was in town for a week of rehearsals, and he was making food for the group. Checking the phone, he saw an email from American Pianists Association President and Artistic Director Joel Harrison asking for a call back ASAP. Sam did so and was thrilled to learn that he was a finalist for the 2017 American Pianists Awards!
This short anecdote serves as an illustration of two critical but somewhat contrasting things you need to know about Sam: first, he enjoys people. Whether spending time with family, making music with chamber groups or hosting fellow musicians and friends, there is a pronounced social aspect to Sam’s life.
Second, (and familiar to all of us who like to throw random ingredients into a hot pan) he likes to stir up conventions with a decidedly individualistic flair. At just 22 years old, Sam has led a very unique life to date and is unabashedly proud of his efforts to claim new ground.
Of course, we wouldn’t know either of these things had he not had that conversation with Joel Harrison. In order to be selected an American Pianists Awards finalist, Sam first had to master the keyboard. Let’s just say he had an early start:
Piano was one of the things my mother really wanted to do but didn’t have a chance to pursue as a child so she encouraged me a lot. I loved it so much that there was a point in my childhood when I was 6 or 7 when she said to me, “well this is all good but you need to go outside and play. I’m going to make you quit for a year or take a break.” And so I did. And apparently at the end of that I said, “Okay mom so we’ve had a year and now I’m going to go back to playing the piano.”
Sahun Sam Hong was born in Seoul, Korea on July 18, 1994, making him the youngest finalist in this year’s competition. Sam’s family moved to the United States when he was 8 after his father decided to attend seminary school here. The family found its way to Fort Worth, Texas and got a teacher to help Sam continue following his passion for the keys. Amazed by the talented youngster, Sam’s piano teacher contacted Texas Christian University (TCU) piano chair John Owings to hear him play. With the support of Owings, at the age of 11 Sam enrolled at TCU. When his family decided to move on from Texas, eventually it was agreed that Sam would stay behind with his “second family”:
Growing up in the Lone Star State may have helped shape Sam’s independent sensibilities, as Sam recounts:
I remember when I was studying when I was younger I did feel a little like a musical lone ranger in the fact that I am working and I don’t have a lot of people near me who seem to be on a similar path. Texas has a sense of freedom to it for sure. It has a sense of being able to look into yourself and be free to experiment. Be free in the sense that we are really to develop our own voice, and I enjoyed that very much.
At the age of 16, Sam graduated magna cum laude from Texas Christian University (TCU) with a Bachelor of Music degree in Piano Performance. He currently studies at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
As Sam has continued his studies, his attention has been drawn toward performing with others—particularly in chamber groups. Sam explains:
Well I think that working in chamber music requires you to develop an interpretation that is coherent and is understood by more people. So while it does make it more difficult to create an interpretation that has absolutely no compromise, I think at the same time it helps in understanding how other people understand your ideas and helps you find new colors with the encouragement from the other members or just inspiration from the sounds of their instruments.
And the instruments aside from piano that Sam enjoys most are strings, the sound of which he describes as “incomparable.” In addition to piano, he studied cello when he was young, before becoming dedicated to the piano. Recently, he began playing cello again, “just so that in rehearsal with a cellist I can say here is what I think it should sound like and then I can go to his cello and just do it!”
Given his love for piano and strings, Sam lists masters of both as inspiration: Jacqueline du Pré, Pierre Fournier, Arthur Rubinstein and William Primrose.
Fittingly, a chamber music festival introduced Sam to his favorite place to perform:
This group setting perfectly fits Sam’s sensibilities. Pressed for a dream venue he would like to play, he doesn’t hesitate: “I’d love to play [Hotel St. Bernard] again. I don’t really have a particular hall or anything like that. I think halls are really great–acoustically they’re perfect—but I think to reach the human part of us it requires an intimate setting. So for me the space or the legendary hall is not as important of a thing.”
As for the future, Sam shares the following:
Sam Hong is excited for his Premiere Series performance on December 4, 2016 with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra: “I’m going to love that! I’m looking forward to it so much!” Indeed, Sam is thrilled to participate in the American Pianists Awards and understands the uniqueness of the competition.
He also holds in high regard former Awards winners and his fellow competitors. Of 2013 American Pianists Awards winner Sean Chen he says, “I’m a really big fan of him and his Beethoven playing. I think he is one of few modern pianists who really get it right on Beethoven and I’m really happy to see that he is an alum.” And to the four other finalists for the 2017 Awards, Sam offers the following:
A warm message from a very social yet independent musician. We look forward to welcoming Sam to town this December. And to address Sam’s request, yes, those not able to attend performances of the American Pianists Awards will still have the opportunities to experience beautiful music through APA’s YouTube channel and website.
The American Pianists Awards finalists were selected by jury from nominations of the top American classical pianists aged 18-30. Each pianist performs a Premiere Series concert in Indianapolis between September 2016 and February 2017. All five finalists return to Indianapolis for a week of juried performances next spring, culminating in the naming of a winner on April 8, 2017.
Sam Hong’s Premiere Series concert will be Sunday, December 4 at the Indiana History Center. As part of the American Pianists Awards program, Sam will also complete a residency at Lawrence North High School 12/5 to 12/7. Show your support for him on social media by mentioning #AmericanPianistsAwards #TeamSam!