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‘This concerto holds the memories and traces of my childhood’ | A Q&A with violinist Ye-Eun Choi

By Lore Watterson

For their first live concerts in about 18 months, a special line-up of conductors and soloists have been secured for the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra’s (JPO) Special Spring Concerts.

With the first concert having taken place on 28 October, the JPO will be performing its second concert on Thursday 4 November 2021 with the violinist Ye-Eun Choi, one of the world’s most in-demand soloists. Choi is no stranger to the JPO, she’s played once before with the orchestra during their 2019 Winter Season and the sold-out audience kept her on the stage for several standing ovations – a dazzling performance.

In this forth-coming JPO Special Spring Concert, Choi will be performing the magnificent Violin concerto in E minor, Op. 64 by Mendelssohn. Her performances have consistently gathered rare reviews around the international concert houses wherever she plays. Silvia Thurner of the German KULTUR magazine described one such performance as:

‘a performance of breathing style and a bewitchingly beautiful and multifaceted tone, which I have seldom experienced in this clarity… As a result Ye-Eun Choi reached a great musical breadth and depth.’

Born in Seoul in 1988, Choi made her orchestral debut at age 10 with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. She moved to Munich In 2004 to study with Ana Chumachenco at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater and graduated in 2014 with a Konzertexamen.

violinist Ye-Eun Choi Q&A interview

Choi was then recognised by Anne-Sophie Mutter at age 16, and joined as a scholar of the Anne-Sophie Mutter Foundation. She made her debut with New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Alan Gilbert in 2009 and was awarded the European Cultural Young Artist Award in 2013. Today she is a close friend of Mutter, still lives in Munich and as Mutter says:

‘Ye-Eun Choi is a musician who looks to express herself in her own individual way, who has a distinguished, recognisable sound and commands an excellent, instinctive feel for the music. This is precisely what is naturally required from a soloist: someone who does not just perform a piece, but makes it her own. She ranks among the most talented of violinists.’ 

This long-standing relationship connects the two artists Choi and Mutter who often share the stage as they are performing chamber music throughout Europe, US, and Asia, together with the cellists Daniel Müller Schott and Kian Soltani, as well as viola player Vladimir Babeshko. Extensive concert tours bring them to the most established concert halls such as Vienna Konzerthaus, Berlin Philharmonie, Alte Oper Frankfurt, Palau de la Musica Catalana, Carnegie Hall New York, Davis Symphony Hall San Francisco, Suntory Hall Tokyo, among others.

Choi plays a violin from J.B. Guadagnini, Parma c. 1765 and in 2013 her debut CD was released by Deutsche Grammophon with sonatas by Mendelssohn, Schubert and Prokofiev.

She regularly appears at festivals such as Bergen International Festival, Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival, Dresdner Musikfestspiele, Moritzburg Festival, Verbier Festival, Blaricum Music Festival, Marcel Proust’s Musical Days in Cabourg, among many others.

violinist Ye-Eun Choi Q&A interview

In the following Q&A, Creative Feel’s Lore Watterson speaks with Choi about the upcoming concert with the JPO, the violinist’s personal connection with Mendelssohn’s concerto, and her life in Germany.  

Welcome back to Johannesburg since your wonderful concert in 2019 when the audience loved you and appreciated your performance very much. You will now perform for the first live concert of the JPO after Lockdowns and closed concert stages. Could you tell us how the Covid-19 pandemic affected your own life in the last 18 months and what did you do during these times of great challenges?

I am delighted to be participating in the first concert held after the pandemic.

For the first few months, I was busy organising performances and schedules that were cancelled one by one because I didn’t know how long this pandemic would last. Because the schedules for a long period of time were not cancelled all at once, but one at a time, that is, a week before the performance schedule so, I was continuing to practice and prepare. Then, in September of last year. After that, I almost gave up on playing concerts and did what I wanted to do for a while. After not holding an instrument for a month, I visited my family in Korea, climbed the beautiful mountains of Korea, cooked, and got my driver’s license! It was the first time in nearly 15 years that I had spent so much time with my family. Through this time, it became an important time for me to rethink my outlook on life and goals, and to reflect on myself as a human being, not just as a violinist.

In October, I premiered new work Gran Candenza with violinists Anne Sophie Mutter, a new piece for two violins by a Korean composer Unsuk Chin in Germany. This project is still in progress, so when I return to Europe, I will play again in Paris and Luxembourg.

Here in Johannesburg, you will be performing the Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 by Mendelssohn. Please tell us why you chose this Concerto for your visit and your own feeling about this special piece of music?

The relationship between me and this concerto holds the memories and traces of my childhood to the present day. I studied this piece for the first time when I was 10 years old, and after that, I made my stage debut in Germany with this, meeting with conductor André Previn, etc. There are many years and special stories with this concerto. I don’t know if it’s because I have memories of going through this challenge, but for me, this concerto feels the most difficult to play.

violinist Ye-Eun Choi Q&A interview

It seems that composing this song for Felix Mendelssohn was not that much easier than other works, because it took a little longer than other works, that is, six years, to complete this piece. But if you look at the surviving letters between violinist Ferdinand David, to whom he dedicated this concerto, it shows Mendelssohn’s many trials and retrenchings along his journey toward an acceptable product. He wrote to him in 1838 that the opening melody had ‘given him no peace,’ and later in the year he confessed to being haunted by the violin’s initial statements. 

In the very beginning of the 1st movement, if the tonic chord of a string instrument comes out like a whisper, ride it and the solo violin is a beautiful line. The song begins to sing, and it is essential to create an atmosphere that seems to be enveloped in fog in this part. 

Mendelssohn tried a new and challenging material at that time in this song, some of which introduced a part that allowed the orchestra to lead a solo melody, and a cadenza of a violin solo instrument introduced as a melody reproduction of the orchestra in the middle of the first movement. Also, at the passionate end of the first movement, the orchestra plays the introductory part that enters the second movement andante without ending the song. In the 3rd movement, I think of the meaning of ‘compete’, the etymology of ‘concerto’, which competes like a dialogue between an orchestra and a solo violin.

Creative Feel has been reporting about Anne Sofie Mutter’s own great career for many years and also admired her, of course, for all her initiatives to support young musicians. Now you play often with her on the stage. Could you share with us more about your relationship with your ‘old’ mentor?

Meeting Mrs Mutter was the biggest milestone in my life. As a world-famous violinist and musician, I admire her the most, but what I personally respect more is that the way she lives – her thoughts and attitudes. Her benevolent humanity, faith and love, virtue and wisdom, constant challenge and learning, self-reflection and sacrifice… These words can express her. What I see and learn from her is not only music, but also attitude toward life and purpose of life. We both have very different personalities, but this part is the same. The purpose of my life is to make a positive impact on others and the world, small or large, and to fertilize for a better future, and I feel a lot in common with her in that regard. I consider her to be like my family, and Mutter funnily describes herself as my German mother as well.

You play a violin from J.B. Guadagnini, Parma c. 1765, please tell us more about this instrument.

I am using this instrument on loan from a person in Korea. Should I say that it is sharp rather than flashy, sweet rather than pretty, slightly darker than bright, and more prominent than rich? Somehow, I personally like it because it resembles the colours of Scotland and has a strong personality.

You still live in Germany. What has kept you for all these years in Munich, it must be something special, because it cannot be the Bavarian food or beer?

Sadly, the truth is, I don’t personally like beer or Bavarian food that much, but my favourite friends and people after my family are there. Anne-Sophie Mutter and my teacher, Ana Chumachenko, my personal best old friends. All of these people have been around for over 15 years. Of course, I’ll make new friends and people in other places, but I don’t have friends who know all the parts of me as well as these people. I meet a lot of people through my playing life and I am influenced a lot, but when I come home and meet these people, I can go back without losing my true self. I think that’s a big support for me.

Given that the concert houses around the world will be kept open, what are your plans for the near future?

Due to the corona virus, it is not possible to predict the distant future schedule, but from now on, it seems that the schedule is gradually taking shape. My immediate schedule is to perform a new piece by Unsuk Chin with Anne-Sophie Mutter again in Paris and Luxembourg in November, and then in December I will also tour the quartet with Mrs Mutter and other friends. Since I was living in quarantine due to Corona, it was an opportunity to focus on the chamber program.

JPO’s second Special Spring Concert takes at the Linder Auditorium on 4 November at 19:30, under the baton of celebrated conductor Justus Frantz, and with soloist Ye-Eun Choi. The programme opens with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro: Overture, followed by Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in e minor, Op. 64 and concludes with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, Eroica. Tickets are R250 and are available here.

This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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