By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
Classical pianist Kevin Ahfat, appearing Jan. 19, 20, and 26 at the Seattle Symphony’s Shostakovich Festival, hails from Canada. But he claims an intriguing variety of cultural backgrounds.
Ahfat’s ancestry is Chinese, but his cultural roots trace to the tiny island nation of Mauritius, off the coast of the much larger island nation of Madagascar, east of the African mainland. He can speak French and French Creole, but not Mandarin.
“I’ve always thought it was an interesting dichotomy for me,” he mused. “While I very much grew up with a Chinese cultural background and feel very connected to that culture, I also was exposed to the Mauritian (and therefore French) culture through my family and feel very comfortable navigating that world as well.”
He began to play piano as a very young child, acquiring a steady teacher at age 7. His family eventually moved to America and he recalls his first significant teacher as Lei Weng, from the University of Northern Colorado.
After studying with Weng from age 14, Ahfat went on to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City. His favorite teachers there were Choong-Mo Kang, “who revolutionized the way I approach the piano, and Joseph Kalichstein, “who revolutionized the way I approach music.”
He studied concertos from the composers he describes as the “war-horse” piano concerto writers, including Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev. He named Argentine pianist Martha Argerich as a major musical influence. “I was so captivated,” he recalled, “by how she manages to take hold of a piece and produce something so profoundly unique, boundary-pushing, and daring — but also completely natural. She creates true magic at the piano, and she inspires me to strive to be equally as dynamic at the keyboard.”
When asked about the status of Asians moving forward in classical music, both in Canada and America, Ahfat remarked that he’s pleased to see and hear so many Asians as soloists, orchestral musicians, and leaders.
“I don’t think the scene between Canada and the United States differs too much,” he said. “It is more the East and the West that have different scenes, influenced mostly by unique schools of pianism and the teachers that pass on those different, but equally valid, approaches to music.”
After capturing first prize at the Seattle Symphony’s inaugural International Piano Competition, Ahfat made arrangements to return to the Symphony as part of this year’s Shostakovich Festival.
He’ll perform the Piano Concerto Number One in C Minor, which he describes as full of “sardonic wit,” and Piano Concerto Number Two in F Major, a work, he says, of “brilliant buoyancy.”
“One of my favorite things about playing Shostakovich, is experimenting with just how far I can take both his exuberance and his sarcasm, and there are endless opportunities in both concerto to do just that. I’m hoping to keep the audience on their toes!”
Ahfat will continue his studies at Juilliard for another year and a half. He hasn’t yet recorded, but plans to soon. He vows to continue to perform, grow, and build meaningful musical relationships with artists and listeners alike.
“Music is an infinitely vast field,” he concluded, “and I feel grateful to be able to be a small part of it in hopes of making something meaningful through art.”
Andrew can be reached at email@example.com.