The BUddy Post – HKBU Alumni Affairs Office

November 2023
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People・Inspiration

HKBU has nurtured over 148,000 graduates since its inception in 1956 and a lot of alumni have inspiring career journeys in diverse areas and professions. We are delighted to introduce these promising alumni and invite them to share their career aspirations and journey with us.

Sharing by Alumna Leona Cheung
Thriving on Her Path as a Collaborative Pianist

Alumna Leona Cheung, a well-established Collaborative Pianist
(Photo credit: Genevieve Dilan)

Alumna Leona Cheung (Music), graduated from HKBU in piano performance with first-class honours, is now an active collaborative pianist in the United States being recognised for her expertise in the vocal repertoire. After obtaining a Master of Music degree and a Graduate Diploma in Collaborative Piano from the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, Leona has collaborated with the Seraphic Fire, a GRAMMY-nominated vocal ensemble based in Florida; the Handel and Haydn Society, the performing arts organisation with the longest history in the US; and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the official chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She also serves as a staff pianist at the NEC, Boston Conservatory, and Northeastern University.

Reflecting on her journey of growth and advancement, Leona expresses her gratitude for the time at HKBU. During her time at HKBU, she immersed herself in various musical opportunities, including serving as a pianist for several choirs and orchestras, notably the HKBU Choir. It was through these enriching experiences that she discovered her true passion for developing her career as a collaborative pianist.

Leona is guided by pianist Mr Raymond Young during her studies at HKBU.

1. You majored in piano for undergraduate studies, and then furthered your studies in collaborative piano. Please share the key difference between a solo pianist and a collaborative pianist. Why is collaborative piano performance more appealing to you?

During my time at HKBU, solo piano performance was my focus. I was honoured to receive guidance from the renowned pianist Mr Raymond Young, the first Bösendorfer Artist from Hong Kong. I dedicated most of my effort to refining every detail of solo piano pieces during practices, along with committing to the memorisation of the entire concert programmes. While studying with Mr Young, I strived to develop my listening skills and create beautiful singing lines on the piano.

One highly impactful experience occurred shortly after my graduation when I served as a professional choral pianist under the guidance of Maestro Helmuth Rilling. As the Principal Pianist, I got to witness how a musical giant like Maestro Rilling put together a concert. This experience opened my eyes to the joy of making music with conductors, singers and other musicians, sparking my interest in becoming a collaborative pianist eventually.

Upon moving to Boston and enrolling in NEC, I immersed myself in an environment surrounded by all sorts of talented musicians. One of the highlights was my performance in a masterclass conducted by baritone Thomas Hampson in 2019. As I worked and coached singers of all voice types, my passion for collaborating with singers grew.

In addition to my piano lessons, my weekly schedule included diction classes and song interpretation classes in different languages (German, French, English, and Italian). Understanding the language and poetry is a must for collaborative pianists, since we partner with the singers in telling a story. A collaborative pianist’s role is to craft the atmosphere in the piano introduction, employing varied articulations to delineate characters and convey emotions ahead of the singer’s entrance. My beloved mentor, pianist Dr Tanya Blaich always encouraged me to sing and play the song simultaneously in the lesson. This approach has helped me grasp the nuances of phrasing, expression, diction and language all at once, enhancing my ability to support singers in collaborative performances.

Driven by my passion for performing art songs, I participated in many international art song festivals across the globe, notably the Oxford Lieder Festival, Leeds Lieder Festival, and Toronto Summer Music Festival. Through these festivals, I had the opportunity to meet many esteemed artists in the field.

Leona is pictured with Dr Tanya Blaich (first from left) and Dr Cameron Stowe (first from right) after her Art Song recital with operatic soprano Ms Cara Bender (second from right).

2. What effort did you make to establish your career as a collaborative pianist overseas after finishing your studies?

When I was still a student at NEC, I began actively pursuing opportunities outside of school. As a newcomer to Boston, I reached out to various organisations and music directors with my resume and sample performance videos. With such proactive outreach, I gradually built my reputation to a point where I was fortunate to receive more incoming requests for performances and collaborations than I could accommodate. My approach has always centred on meticulous preparation, effective communication, flexibility and unwavering professionalism. All these allowed me to build strong relationships with my fellow musicians.

The most memorable aspect of my summer in 2023 was the immense joy I experienced while collaborating with Seraphic Fire, marking my third participation at the esteemed Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. It has been a dream of mine to work with a professional choral ensemble in the US. Therefore, having the chance to work with a GRAMMY-nominated vocal ensemble was truly surreal.

Throughout this journey, I had the honour of collaborating with conductors such as Patrick Dupré Quigley, the Artistic Director of Seraphic Fire, and James K. Bass, a Grammy Award-winning conductor and singer. I performed in the spotlight concerts and served as the Principal Pianist, rehearsing masterpieces with Maestro Robert Spano, Music Director of the Aspen Music Festival. I am genuinely thankful for the experiences and relationships forged through them.

Leona (third from right) with conductors Patrick Dupré Quigley (first from left) and James K. Bass (second from right), alongside fellow artists from Seraphic Fire.

3. What advice would you give to local musicians who wish to step into the international stage of performance?

Music is a lifelong pursuit. It involves not only honing your musical skills but also diligently maintaining your instrument, continually expanding your knowledge and preparing well to seize opportunities as they arise. For instance, I ensured the sample recordings that I sent in outreach emails or applications are in high quality in order to leave a great first impression. Furthermore, I put effort on customising my resume and cover letters for different recipients.

I remember receiving an email from the manager of the Handel and Haydn Society one day, which was my first professional opportunity in the US. They were urgently seeking a pianist for a chorus rehearsal that was happening in just 10 days. The rehearsal was in preparation for a three-day concert series at the sold-out Boston Symphony Hall. I was thrilled to accept the offer. This collaboration not only allowed me to connect with some of the finest musicians in the field but also paved the way for subsequent opportunities. I am currently the Faculty Collaborative Pianist for the Handel and Haydn Society Youth Choruses, which involves performing in annual concerts and outreach activities with the organisation.

Finally, staying actively engaged with the broader music community is paramount. Networking, collaborating and building relationships within the industry can open doors to international opportunities that might otherwise remain elusive.  Attending concerts and workshops regularly can foster connections and keep you informed of current trends and emerging opportunities.