Lan-chee Lam began taking piano lessons when she was seven, followed by pipa (Chinese lute) and guzheng (Chinese harp) lessons when she was 14.

The Hong Kong native did not begin composing until she was 21.

“I actually wanted to do theory in the beginning,” she says, “but I found writing and analysis difficult so I switched to composition.”

Despite her relative inexperience — the third student in composition at the University of Toronto’s faculty of music is now 27 — Lam recently won the 2009 George Enescu International Composition Competition for her orchestral work Mysterious Palace.

Not bad for someone whose parents wanted her to play piano as a hobby. Lam only became interested in classical music after attending a few concerts. “Later, I became more interested in studying music, knowing more about the composers and their repertoire,” she says.

Mysterious Palace was inspired by a 2008 visit to China’s Forbidden City.

“This palace was the centre of Chinese government from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty,” Lam says, “and every corner in the building is decorated in detail. The string section symbolizes these patterns at the beginning of the piece.”

The opening, which mixes Chinese and Western motifs, later segues into a climatic section “describing the war the palace has experienced,” and finally ends with a “quiet and peaceful passage, inspired by memories from people across the country,” Lam says.

In addition to the competition’s 10,000 euro (about $17,300 Canadian) cash prize, Lam’s composition will be performed in 2011 in Romania. She’s currently visiting Hong Kong for the city’s Musicarama Festival, having composed a commissioned piece for San Francisco’s Laurel Ensemble.

Lam earned her undergraduate degree in music from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where her professor, a U of T alumnus, recommended she study in Toronto. “He said I could learn more here because there are more professional ensembles and concerts,” Lam says. “And I could find my own style while I studied here.”

Lam completed her master’s degree in 2007, and plans to complete her doctorate in 2011, after which she hopes to teach and continue composing.

“And maybe get more of my pieces played in other countries,” she says.

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