(Read more about the concert, and listen to a video of the complete Tchaikovsky concerto with the legendary David Oistrakh.) The concerts are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm in the Forum. Dick Strawser presents a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance. Tickets are available at the door. Student tickets are also available (with current Student ID).
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Korean violinist Chee-Yun rushes to shake my hand with the exuberance of a young musician under the influence of playing publicly, for the first time, one of the great masterpieces of chamber music—Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat, the "Archduke"—performed with cellist Andrés Díaz and pianist Stephen Prutsman at the venerable Dock Street Theater, as part of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. She immediately replays the performance in words.
"Sometimes when you’re playing you’re thinking, ‘This is so tough,’ and you’re really concentrating on the detail . . . but today there were moments when I was getting goosebumps. In the slow movement I was actually praying, it was so spiritual. It was a moment when I realized that this is why we do what we do," she says enthusiastically. "We were all so nervous, saying that we had to do this masterpiece justice. Then Steve [Prutsman] said, ‘How many times do we get to play great music for the first time?’ My attitude changed and I realized I would give it my best, just play the notes and let the music flow like butter."
Beneath this youthful and effervescent personality lies a musician who speaks frankly about the rigors of the life of a professional violinist. "Traveling is so hard," she acknowledges. "Oh, I want to take weekends off, go out with my friends—but then, experiences like playing the ‘Archduke’ make it all worthwhile."
She certainly has been playing music for a long time. Chee-Yun began performing early, winning the Grand Prize of the Korean Times Competition at age eight. Her teacher in Korea was Nam Yun Kim; she came to New York (where she is currently based) in 1983, at age 13, to study at the Juilliard School. There she worked with noted teacher Dorothy DeLay, as well as with Hyo Kang and renowned chamber musician Felix Galimir.
That hard work has paid off. Chee-Yun has won numerous awards, including the 1989 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, the 1990 Avery Fisher Career Grant, and the 1993 Nan Pa award of South Korea, that country’s highest musical honor. She has performed as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the National Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Cincinnati Symphony, and she tours as a chamber-music artist with the Spoleto Festival U.S.A.
Two weeks after her "Archduke" performance, she plays Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin with American Gamelan in San Francisco’s Davies Hall, and there it is clear that the effort of her early years has created a musician not only with technique—that of a virtuoso, in fact—but also with a rich, vibrant tone and a presence to match. How does a prodigy become a mature musician?
You started playing at age six. How did you get started?
My mother was a modern woman: she really wanted to learn how to play the piano and be a piano teacher, rather than assume the traditional role of being a good cook and a good wife. My older brother was born first, and, like most Asian men, he got most of the attention. When my mother then had two girls, she started giving them music lessons. I was the fourth child and became a tomboy, playing with my older brother. And my long hair actually is a rebellion against my mom, who was constantly chopping it off to prevent me from playing with it!
But I wanted to be like my sisters, and my older sister was a piano player, a little prodigy. She was really good, and getting all the attention. So I started playing the piano at age four or five so I could get some attention, too. I loved the sound of the piano and started learning more than my teacher asked of me. Playing the piano was easy and fun for me.
But then my mother thought that my eyes were getting crossed from playing the piano. She had me stop the lessons, so I looked for something else to do. My other sister was playing the violin but she hated it—she wanted to become a ballerina. So I started playing the violin.
By the time I was seven years old I was taking lessons, but I wasn’t very motivated and practiced little. My mom wanted me to stop but my teacher objected, saying that there was something in my playing that would merit my continuing. My mom suggested that I enter a competition as a way to motivate me to practice. So at age eight, I entered the Korean Times Competition as an unknown, and I won it. I had never played on stage before, and I instantly fell in love with it!
Winning that competition convinced me that I was good enough to be a professional violinist. I went to study with a Korean professor who was studying with Ivan Galamian and I decided I was going next to Juilliard. When I got there, I was a little frog in the ocean. Midori was there and was having a career after three years. I played in a quartet with her (all of us were 12 or 13 years old—she played the viola) and I remember we played the first movement of the Dvo rák "American" Quartet for a birthday party and earned $50. That was big money for me!
Has it been hard for you to practice on a regular basis?
Practice for me today is much more fun than it used to be. I went through a period when I wished I could go to sleep with the music in my head and wake up having it all memorized. I went through a lazy period when I wanted to go to movies and go out with boys, driving my mom and dad crazy. I would go through periods when I just wanted to quit playing the violin. My parents would say, "Just go ahead, we can sell your violin and buy a nice car with the money." And then I would go back to it.
What kept me going was having a great teacher, Miss DeLay. She was consistently supportive and encouraging. When I went through a real teenage crisis—losing a boyfriend—I would go to my lesson, my eyes welling with tears. She’d say, "Come here, sit next to me, listen and talk to me." I felt she really cared about me as a person, not just as a violinist. When I came to the States, there were so many great players. Who was going to notice me—especially why Miss DeLay? She’d heard this work played by [Itzhak] Perlman, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Midori, all of them a thousand times better than me. How was I going to prove myself? And I didn’t speak English! I was just another one of those little kids.
So I worked so hard for every lesson, like getting ready for a performance. When I went through those years of personal crises, she helped me survive them. I even left home for three days. My mom begged me to come home and my dad said, "Don’t come home, I’m going to disown you!" And then Miss DeLay just drove me home—how about that! And she explained to my dad that what I was going through was temporary, just part of being a teenager.
Since you’ve been out of school, about how many concerts do you play in a year?
I play between 50 and 60 orchestral dates a year. I play a lot of concertos, but I also tour with a group of five of us who play chamber music—Steve Prutsman, Andrés Díaz, [pianist and artistic director for Spoleto’s chamber-music concerts] Charles Wadsworth, [clarinetist] Todd Palmer, and me—under the name of Spoleto USA. We do two different tours a year, playing ten to 12 concerts on each tour. During the summer I play several festivals. This summer  I’m going to the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado, to Spoleto in South Carolina, and to the La Jolla Summerfest in California. I love going to festivals, and Spoleto was my first one, back in 1993. Playing chamber music at the summer festivals has played a significant role in my maturation as a musician.
Why is chamber music so attractive to you?
I started playing chamber music a lot in 1990, after I went to the Marlboro Music Festival [in Vermont]. Chamber music is great because you get to work with high-caliber musicians who are willing to share their knowledge and experience with you. I love getting constructive criticism and feedback in a rehearsal. I sit at the rehearsal and I ask my colleagues, ‘How is this?’ I listen to their answers and I try them out. I might have my own ideas, but I’m curious to know what they’re thinking first. To play on stage with them is great fun—the spontaneous give-and-take that happens is really special. Chamber music has helped me play concertos because I listen to the orchestra more closely now.
What is it like playing a concerto for an orchestra for the first time?
When I meet the orchestra, I want to be with them, rather than being a soloist apart from them. They don’t know you, and you know that they’re all saying to themselves, "Oh, here’s yet another Asian violinist, all fingers but very doubtful as a musician." And that’s fine, but I’m there to prove them wrong!
Soloists often need to lead the orchestra when playing a concerto, but sometimes it’s actually better to follow the conductor and listen carefully to what’s going on in the orchestra rather than just playing your solo part. I want to be part of the orchestra. I want to be able to hear the strings and the winds just as much as the conductor does. I know the score, I know what’s going on, and I want to make it all work. Orchestra musicians really appreciate that. And then they come up to me afterwards, and say, "Wow, you really make music. It was fun playing with you."
I want them to enjoy the experience as much as I do. How great it is that I get to play with all those musicians on stage, rather than trying to be in the spotlight as a soloist.
How many rehearsals do you have with the orchestra?
One or two at the most. It isn’t enough, and when the conductor spends too much time on the other symphonic works on the program, it can get ugly. There usually isn’t a piano rehearsal with the conductor—unless it’s a new work, and then the conductors want to spend a lot of time with the soloist. If they know the work and have played it many times, then all the conductor usually wants is a run-through.
What makes a good conductor, from your perspective?
Sensitivity, someone who is open to my ideas about interpretation, and someone with a willingness to allow spontaneous things to happen. Someone who exerts leadership, which means achieving rapport between me, as the soloist, and the orchestra. That’s so important, because if you don’t have rapport with the orchestra, they won’t follow you. A lot of times it’s a combination of musical and personal issues. The good conductors I work with know exactly what to say in rehearsals, when to say it, and how to say it. How often to stop and interrupt. The good conductors are well prepared; they have a plan and know how they want to work with this rehearsal. And of course it’s easier to work with conductors who are familiar with me.
A conductor has to know a whole lot more about a piece than I do, because he’s conducting the whole orchestra. So I go to him with the score and ask how this or that phrase works dynamically, how does it fit in, should I come in at a higher volume level because the winds are playing, even though the score says "piano," and so forth.
Of the concerts you do, in how many are you really playing in top form?
That’s a good question. Often I feel like I’m not really playing as well as I can. Every time you go on stage, you’re completely exposed. People expect you to play at this incredibly high level every time. There are days that I’m slightly off and don’t play as well. People don’t know that you might have a really bad flu one night, and that your head is so stuffed up that your hearing goes in and out. Then there are days when you really are on.
I was on tour with the San Francisco Symphony this spring and played the Mendelssohn Concerto seven times. In New Haven, Connecticut, it was very hot and humid, and a huge storm deluged the streets just before the concert. I felt really good on that day and I decided to go for it. And everything worked out. One of the factors that makes a difference is to decide to really go all out, rather than holding back. If you worry too much or are insecure in your playing, it shows. It sounds as if you’re scared, nothing is coming off your ideas, and you can’t communicate. So, the more I decide to go for it, even though it might not always work, the better I become overall.
Do you play contemporary music as well?
I just finished recording the Penderecki Concerto No. 2 for Naxos. It’s a great piece, and the more I play it the more I like it. And when I played with the California Symphony [in May 2000], I met its composer in residence, Kevin Putz. He gave me a CD of his works and I liked them a great deal. So I’ve commissioned him to write me a work for solo violin.
What role has recording played in the development of your career?
Artistically, recording forces you to prepare a piece even more meticulously than a performance. I consider myself a perfectionist. When I prepare for recordings, I am really hard on myself. I hate to do a lot of takes, because when you do that the music becomes dead.
But when you listen to a recording that is perfect in every way, often you never want to listen to it again. It’s so boring. I like recordings that feel like a live concert: you feel the drive, the phrases go somewhere. And that’s how I prepared the Penderecki Concerto, which I played with Antonio Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony. I was able to record the work in big chunks. and I told the producer that I was looking for excitement and the "live concert" feeling. I can’t wait until the recording comes out [in Fall 2001], as I think it’s one I will be really proud of.
Do you listen to your recordings?
Well, no. Although people say nice things about my past recordings, I just cringe at some of the details. I want to do them over again—do I ever! And it’s been four years since I made my last recording [the Lalo Symphonie espagnole and the Saint-Saëns Violin Concerto No. 3, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jesus Lopez-Cobos]. I didn’t do anything with Denon for a while because the producer I worked with left the company, but they rehired him, and they want to renew my contract.
What composers really move you?
I like melodic pieces. Tonal music. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t crazy about Beethoven, though. I always thought that I would wait awhile before playing the Beethoven Concerto, and I’m still going to wait several years until I play that piece. I’m going to go back and study it again, now that I’ve played the "Archduke" Trio. I’ve been to concerts where young violinists play the Beethoven Concerto—and then I’ve heard Milstein play it at his last concert [on recording], and it was phenomenal. That kind of experience and depth is really needed, and I’m not ready to play it yet. The Brahms Concerto is also one I haven’t played yet, but it is scheduled for next season [2000–01].
What violinists are your heroes?
All the contemporary violinists who are playing are heroes and heroines to me. Among past violinists, [youthful prodigy and Galamian student] Michael Rabin [(1936–72), and Polish-born Mexican soloist and teacher] Henryk Szeryng [(1918–88)]. Szeryng is so spiritual and spontaneous.
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Here is Henryk Szeryng playing the finale of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic:
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Are there any works you’re dying to play that you haven’t played?
The Barber Concerto is in my repertoire, but I haven’t played it [publicly] yet. It is so beautiful. And I’m looking forward to playing the Brahms next year.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to classical radio stations when I’m in the car. I love to listen to opera—Maria Callas is my favorite. She was a great actress and sang with such feeling. I’ve seen her videotapes, and the drama she infuses into her roles comes through in her recordings as well. I try to do that when I play. The stringed instruments are really closest to the human voice, and a lot of times in a piece I’m playing I’ll try to sing, to imitate the most beautiful voices. The second movement of the "Archduke" Trio is an example.
Why are there so many great Asian musicians, and especially string players?
The biggest reason is that, at least in my parents’ generation, the mother always stayed home with their children to nurture and motivate them. I don’t remember any students who were successful at Juilliard, whether they were from here or Korea, who did not have one parent who came with them to Juilliard. There are as many Asian piano players as string players, maybe not as many wind players. Right now the violin is probably more popular, but when I was a little girl, the piano was more common. Parents have such a strong influence on a child’s character, and I think their mothers’ full-time role has been the major reason there are so many Asian musicians today.
How have you grown musically in the last few years?
When I was a little girl I had confidence on stage, but it was show-off confidence. As I grew and got nervous before performing, insecurity set in and I started doubting myself. That lasted for several years.
Then, in the last five years, I began to drop the insecurity and decided to go all out in my playing. It’s as if I had played the works millions of times and there was no hesitation. That meant that I started taking risks, and the music began to come alive on a more consistent basis. The risk taking began to open my mind and then I began to think less of being scared. My intonation got so much better when I started taking risks, and my phrasing became much more musical. It also has a lot to do with playing chamber music, taking music apart with chamber musicians and learning from them. I’m so grateful and lucky that Charles Wadsworth invited me to play chamber music, almost all of which I played for the first time.
Twenty-five years from now, what is the most important thing you hope you will have contributed to the music world?
I love young children. I hope I will be able to pass on my wisdom—when I have some! I see so many great young players now, and they’re so advanced at such an early age. I’d like to share with them what it means to be a part of mankind, and to pass on what I’ve learned about classical music. I’ve taught a couple of students and it’s been a great experience, and I’ve realized that I’ve learned so much by teaching .
And I would be pleased if people came to me and said, "Your playing spoke to me; I felt it." That would be the biggest compliment I could receive.
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“A Conversation with Violinist Chee-Yun” By Robert Moon posted November/December 2000
©2000 Stringletter Publishing. Used by permission. http://www.allthingsstrings.com