Musical prodigy Tengku Ahmad Irfan takes on the world of orchestra

AWAINA ARBEE and BEATRICE NITA JAY

AWAINA ARBEE and BEATRICE NITA JAY speak to Tengku Ahmad Irfan, who is making waves in the world of orchestra


AT 19, Tengku Ahmad Irfan Tengku Ahmad Shahrizal has already made a name for himself in the world of orchestra.

A pianist and composer, the musical prodigy began playing the piano at the age of 7.

Today, he travels the world building his repertoire as a composer, standing alongside famous conductors and playing for renowned orchestras.

Winner of the Aspen Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 Competition, the ASCAP Charlotte Bergen and ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer awards, Irfan has collaborated with the Singapore Symphony, Sao Paulo State Youth Orchestra, Juilliard Orchestra, Estonian National Symphony and Aspen Chamber Symphony.

He made his conducting debut with the MusicNova Orchestra for the premiere of his string orchestral work, Nocturne, in 2015. He recently conducted the premiere of his work, Pengembaraan Minda dan Kenyataan at the Lincoln Centre in New York.

Described by The New York Times as “eminently cultured” and possessing “sheer incisiveness and power”, the 19-year-old studies at The Juilliard School with a double major in piano and composition.

He first performed with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) at Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in 2009 when he was 11. He now has performed eight times there.

Speaking to the New Sunday Times, Irfan said his love for music came organically.

“I can never single out what my inspirations are and where they come from, but I can only guess that they may have come from the combination of my subconscious and a complex mixture that makes up my state of awareness.”

Irfan said his daily schedule was tight with music practices, school activities as well as socialising with family and friends.

“I plan my schedule tightly and in advance. I also prepare alternate schedules so that I can swing that into motion when things don’t go as planned. This way, I don’t lose time. I spend my free time with my family and friends, and we do whatever comes to mind, be it movies or playing video games,” he said.

Spending most of his time overseas, the piano virtuoso will return to Malaysia next month for his ninth collaboration with MPO from May 5-6, where he will perform Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

“It is always great to be home and perform with MPO again. I am looking forward to performing Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

“I hope to not only convey the rhythmical and lyrical moments of the piece, but also to expose more of Bartok’s music to the audience.

“The piece is ‘unusual’ and yet traditional at the same time, and I hope to convey the beautiful and unusual aspects of the piece,” he said.

MPO will also perform Kodaly’s Hary Janos Suite and Respighi’s evocative The Pines of Rome.

All concerts will be led by Malaysian conductor Harish Shankar and will feature the Malaysian Philharmonic Youth Orchestra.


Irfan’s father, Dr Tengku Ahmad Shahrizal, said Irfan’s passion for composing and interest in conducting began when he started playing the piano.

“He tends to be engrossed, analysing music scores, audios and videos encompassing chamber performances, and orchestral music.

“Experts advised that the only way to educationally move forward is for him to be trained at the best music conservatories and so, at 13, he auditioned to be enrolled at Juiliard Pre-College and was accepted,” Shahrizal said.


“Composing is something he does naturally, and he will continue with that. At the moment, his goals are to keep on improving in all three fields, while hopefully also developing his own voice.”

Last year, he was the youngest among the world’s top classical musicians to join the Aspen Music Festival, where he completed a series of 15 performances.