Catching up with the youngest ever winner of the Van Cliburn Competition as she heads to Australia.
Your concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre focuses on night and romance; how did you go about drawing these pieces together?
This is a very colourful, dramatic, eclectic recital program. Oftentimes I try to come up with pieces that “fit” in an unusual way. The first half was built around Bartók’s Out Of Doors. It is in my hopes that listeners find interesting juxtapositions between Beethoven’s Sonata Op 31, No 3 (nicknamed the “Hunt”) and the “Chase” of Bartók; between Chopin Nocturnes and Bartók ‘s “Night Music”. While sharing a common thread, these pieces illuminate in different ways. The second half of the program celebrates the composer Sergei Rachmaninov. The three transcriptions show Rachmaninov as a great “song” composer, whereas the second sonata as a great “pianistic” composer.
You’ve chosen Earl Wild’s arrangements of Rachmaninov. Is he a piano idol of yours?
Earl Wild transcriptions are very special. I started to learn them after I heard his magnificent recording of his own transcriptions. I feel that they elevate Rachmaninov’s nostalgic melodies to another level.
Your latest album Collage was inspired by your synaesthetic reaction to Joan Snyder’s paintings. Can you explain how you use colour as a guide in your piano playing?
Visual inspirations play a big role in my music making. For a piece like Bartók ‘s Out Of Doors, it’s hard to find any kind of pattern when learning the piece, which makes it very difficult to absorb and memorize. I like to colour my score and “colour code” different notes and sections, which facilitates my learning process. Putting colours and abstract shapes on the piece also influences how I interpret the piece. Changing the shade of a section might completely change the way I play that section.
Just following on from that, I’ve always found the opening chord of Beethoven’s Sonata No 18 and its minor unusual for Beethoven “colouristically”. Why did you choose this sonata?
It is indeed “unusual” for Beethoven to write a four-movement sonata without a slow movement (which is why I’ve added the Nocturnes, the first of which, Op 48, No 1 is set on the key of the relative minor). This is an incredibly interesting work that sets the tone for the first half of the program. For each selection in the first half, there is a strong presence of two rival forces – the prey and the hunter – or in the Nocturne, the “Jekyll and Hyde”.
You were the youngest-ever medallist in the Van Cliburn Competition at the age of 19. Aside from the exposure this has brought you, what have you taken from the experience in your career?
The Cliburn changed my life. The experience itself made me strive to be my very best and taught me that I have to be able to “digest” huge amounts of repertoire in very little time in the real world. It has also taught me to believe in my own voice as a performer. But the greatest gift that the Cliburn Competition has brought me is the chance to play with the great Takács Quartet. They taught me the magic of simultaneous spontaneity, which is something that happens only in a great collaboration.
You moved to New York to study at Juilliard at only age 10/11. How has such a major move in your formative years shaped your outlook as a musician, and also more generally in life?
At such a young age, learning a new language and getting used to the new culture weren’t so difficult. However, I remember it was hard for me to live apart from my dad and my relatives, especially my aunt with whom I was very close (and who taught me to play the piano from the age of 4). Looking back, playing the piano was something I could always count on. It was the backbone of my every day activities and something I could not be without. People ask me about the moment I “decided to become a pianist”. There was never such a moment in my life; I just fell in love with it.
There seem to be a few very gifted young pianists emerging from South Korea – H.J. Lim springs to mind. Is there anything about your upbringing there that comes out in your music-making?
Diligence is an important concept every Korean kid learns at an early age. My attention to detail has been taught and practiced and that is one of the characteristics that a performer must portray no matter what age.