By Inge Kjemtrup
The powerhouse violinist reclaims the international solo stage after a decade away
Kyung Wha Chung is back in the spotlight, and very happy to be there, too. You could be forgiven for not knowing that the famous Korean violinist had ever been away, yet following a finger injury in 2005, she retired from public performance for five years. It’s only in the past few years that she has returned to the public arena in a substantial way.
“Coming back to playing is a wonderful, ongoing experience, and it doesn’t seem real,” she tells me. “It is quite miraculous.”
In person, Kyung Wha Chung exudes enthusiasm, vibrancy, and warmth—qualities that come across to an audience. As the Verbier Festival Orchestra played the opening of the Brahms Violin Concerto for her festival debut in July, for instance, she seemed completely engaged with the music, her facial expressions telegraphing her emotions.
The difficult stages in life are the best ones; they develop you and make you think.
A landmark in her return to the international concert world will be the release in October of her first CD in 15 years, made for her new label, Warner Classics. The disc features all six Bach solo sonatas and partitas. (I had a preview of some of the tracks and they are resplendent with Chung’s trademark expressive phrasing and singing tone.) She will also perform all of the works in a single evening at several venues around the world (one of these is London’s Barbican Hall on October 26).
There’s also a recital disc in the works with her pianist collaborator Kevin Kenner. It features Fauré’s Sonata No. 1, Op. 13; Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 1, Op. 80; and César Franck’s sonata, which has been identified with her since she made a recording with Radu Lupu. Chung played these three pieces in a recital at Verbier, and she’ll be bringing them to Carnegie Hall on May 18, 2017.
“It will be 50 years since I won the Leventritt there,” she muses about the Carnegie concert. Sharing first prize at the Leventritt Competition in 1967 with Pinchas Zukerman launched her North American career at age 19. In 1970, stepping in for Itzhak Perlman in the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra put her into the international spotlight.
Her subsequent career was starry, and many regard her as the first Asian classical superstar, paving the way for the likes of Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. It’s hard to believe that her concert performances have been so few lately, especially after she reminds me several times, “Basically, I’m a performer; being a performer is in my blood.”
Being a performer might be well a genetic trait, in which case it’s one that she shares with several of her seven siblings, including her brother, conductor/pianist Myung-Whun Chung, and her sister, cellist Myung-Wha Chung Kyung (the three performed together as a piano trio).
Or it might have more to do with her mother, who was ambitious for her children, but encouraging and understanding, too.
Chung began the violin at the age of six, after a false start on the piano. (She’s said that she was partly motivated by the way beautiful violin playing makes people cry). She made her debut playing a Mozart concerto at the age of nine, and by 13, she was headed to New York City to study at the Juilliard School with Ivan Galamian, whom she credits for building her technique.
The relationship with Galamian, though close, was not without its bumps. He was sometimes less than sympathetic when his pupil didn’t make progress. Chung did a hilarious imitation of Galamian at a public interview in Verbier. She lowers her voice and says, “‘Cookie,’—that’s what he called me—‘if only you would practice.’ The difficult stages in life are the best ones; they develop you and make you think,” she adds. She would experience another difficult stage in her life in 2005, when she suffered an injury in her left index finger, though it was not the first crisis in her life. Answering a question at the Verbier public interview, she spoke movingly about a crisis of confidence in 1989 that her Christian faith helped her to get through. Her faith continues to support her. “I walk onstage and God is with me,” she says.
The finger injury came at an especially busy time in her career. “I was given a massive dosage of cortisone [for it]. It settled down after a week and I went on playing. I had a project to record four Bach concertos and a tour in fall 2005. I was about to perform two concertos with [conductor Valery] Gergiev and my finger just collapsed.”
In the five years away from playing, she used her energies in teaching (at the Juilliard School and Ewha University in Seoul), a festival she founded with her sister (the PyeongChang Music Festival & School in South Korea), and charity projects.
Looking back over that time, she says, “In retrospect I think it was all a very helpful learning experience for me.” She’s subsequently had microsurgery on her thumb in 2014, only months before her return to the London concert stage.
While she doesn’t have time to teach now, she still coaches and advises young players. For Chung, commitment to music is essential. She’s impressed by the “absolutely superb” technical mastery she finds in young players but she’s worried about other aspects.
“My message to them is: Do you love what you do? All these young players are so driven, I wonder if they will ask that question or they’re able to face that question. They have so much pressure now.”
At the Verbier Festival, I spoke with many young musicians who regard Chung highly, admiring what they see as her risk-taking approach. One admirer is Paul Rah, a Munich-based freelance cellist, member of the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, and the administrator of Chung’s Facebook page. Rah says that pianist Stephen Kovacevich once told him he had never met any artist who searched more and worked harder to get to the truth of the music than Chung.
Deciding to record the Bach sonatas and partitas, one of the mountains of the repertoire, seems like another example of risk-taking. Chung had recorded the D minor partita and the C major sonata for Decca years ago, but decided not to continue the series, something she regretted later.
Earlier this year in Beijing she gave her first performance of all six pieces. “I had no idea I could handle it, but the music carried me. People were so generous.”
Life is full of surprises. It is like a gift, completely. I take one day at a time.
Chung performs the pieces in order, taking a break after playing two of them. Was it exhausting? “To play the three fugues takes tremendous physical energy, but it’s not just physical—it’s as much mental and emotional energy.” Her recital program, with two 19th-century works, the Fauré and the Franck, bookending the 20th-century Prokofiev, demands slightly different energy.
The Prokofiev, written over ten years, is dark and foreboding, and Chung brought a chill to a warm summer day with her playing, especially the spooky, breathy scales at the end of the first and final movements, often referred to as “whispering in the graveyard.” She sees it as “not a graveyard but a lifting up of souls.”
“The Fauré was written when the composer was young and the Franck when the composer was old,” Chung explains. “But they are of the same subject, a whole portrait of life itself. There is expression and passion, with respect to fantasy.”
Chung stressed that bringing out color is vital in both the Fauré and the Franck. “You know, Monet painted the same scene at the pond with lilies 3,000 times. It is because the reflection of light has endless possibility. The same thing with the texture and the sound when you’re playing. There are millions of sounds.”
Franck wrote his sonata as a wedding gift for the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. I’m surprised to learn that Chung only discovered this fact when she was teaching at Juilliard, well after she made her famous recording.
The Fauré, however, is entirely new to her and she delved into it for the first time with pianist Kevin Kenner. She spoke enthusiastically of working with Kenner, “after five years of partnership, the kind of exchange of color and the breathing is now so incorporated.” She and Kenner are building repertoire together that includes Schubert, Beethoven, Schumann, Prokofiev, and the Bach sonatas, the latter perhaps with harpsichord. She even played with a jazz singer and guitarist at a festival in February, and said she’d be up for exploring more of that.
She will still have time for pieces that people know her for.
“Look, I’ve been playing the Brahms concerto for 50 years. It is more fresh, more exciting, more amazing every time I tackle it.” It was the first concerto she played on her return to the Asian concert stage in 2010 and it remains a touchstone, as does Brahms himself.
“I named my dogs Johannes and Clara,” she tells me over the phone. When we meet in Verbier, she shows me photos of them. Johannes always takes tender care of Clara, his sister. No Robert, then? “We don’t want that old triangle again,” she says with a laugh.
I asked Chung what is different for her about performing in public these days. “What is different is when I’m on the stage now, I feel freer.
“Life is full of surprises,” Chung says. “It is like a gift, completely. I take one day at a time.”
What Kyung Wha Chung Plays
Instrument: Kyung Wha Chung plays the “Rode” Guarneri del Gesù violin, dating from 1734. The “Kubelik, Ferni” del Gesù she used to play was from 1735, and she finds that the Rode has “a warmer sound” she favors in contrast to the “more focused” sound of the Kubelik. She adds, “I would love to play a Strad if I could find a small one. I was actually looking for small Strad when I was recording unaccompanied Bach—Strad is easier.”
Bows: “For Bach I use a Tourte; it’s lighter, a more focused sound,” she says, adding that in different settings she uses her Adam bow. “I use whatever I think is suitable for the particular acoustic.”