Valentine’s Day arrives a few days late with award-winning violinist Chee-Yun playing Piazzolla’s engaging and lively “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” with the Dallas Chamber Symphony on February 19 at Moody Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District.
"It's very hot, passionate music, tango music," Chee-Yun said. "There's not one moment of this music where your mind wanders off. It will be the most fast, direct communication I can have with the audience."
Chee-Yun has been communicating with audiences around the world since the age of eight. A native of Seoul, South Korea, she watched her two older sisters practicing their instruments and played piano before she picked up the violin at age six.
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The violin was a natural fit and her mother suggested she play in a competition.
"My mother encouraged me to enter it because she knew I was a very competitive child and I just didn't practice the violin as much as I used to practice the piano. She thought, 'Well, if we tell she has to enter competitions, she will practice more.' Her plan worked," Chee-Yun said. Much to her surprise, Chee-Yun won the competition.
When her older sister attended Julliard, Chee-Yun determined she wanted to study at the famed school too. "America looked like Disneyland," she said.
When she began studying at Julliard with Dorothy DeLay at 13, she quickly learned life in New York City was not a fairytale for a teenager who did not know how to speak English, cook or do laundry.
"At first, I was really excited. Then I was super intimidated because I thought I was pretty good, but there were students similar in age – 12, 13, 14 – from all over the world, great violinists, so talented. I thought, 'How am I going to even be noticed?'" Chee-Yun said. "'I need to make my mark here. I don’t know how to speak English so all I know how to do well is play the violin, so I better do that really well.'"
Indeed, Chee-Yun did make her mark at Julliard and the world of classical music. The 1989 winner of the Young Concert Artists International Auditions and recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant, she has performed with some of the world's most renowned orchestras and conductors in nearly every major American city as well as internationally.
She performed arrangements of "West Side Story" for President Bill Clinton at the White House for the National Medal of the Arts Gala. A fan of "Seinfeld" and Larry David, she eagerly agreed to appear as herself in the "Denise Handicap" episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." In 2016, she played for the Secretary General at the United Nations in celebration of the 25th anniversary of South Korea joining the UN. "Serenata Notturno," Chee-Yun's recording released by Decca/Korea, went platinum within six months of its release.
Chee-Yun never planned on teaching, but while living in Cincinnati, she was offered teaching positions at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and Indiana University School of Music. From 2007 to 2017, she served as Artist-in-Residence and Professor of Violin at Southern Methodist University.
"I did enjoy teaching. At the end of the day after teaching four students, I felt more energized. Working with them made me prepare for my own performances better and made me a better player. Teaching got me to the places that are much deeper in the music," Chee-Yun said.
Chee-Yun gave her students the same advice she received from her teachers. "Do not try to emulate or imitate anybody else's life. We are all very unique individuals. We have unique voices, even through our instruments. You have a unique sound. Believe in that and try to make the best version of you," she said.
Developing her own voice as a violinist meant finding the perfect instrument. Chee-Yun owns a violin made by Francesco Ruggieri in 1669, fabled to be Ruggieri's best creation. The violin, featured in the Washington Post, is rumored to have been buried with a former owner. The instrument still has its original finish and Chee-Yun is grateful to play it. "It’s incredible. I've had it for a long time now and every time I pick it up, I'm just amazed how beautiful and gorgeous it sounds," Chee-Yun said.
Chee-Yun makes her home in Dallas, traveling for work as necessary. Playing Piazzolla's fiery masterpiece in her adopted hometown is a treat.
"His music embodies the technicality and complexity that classical musicians should have in their technical abilities, but at the same time, his music is so deep. It's roots music. It's what he was born with," she said. "It is challenging, but at the same time, it is the most fun. I love it. I feel like I can be myself and be totally passionate, totally out-of-control at times and it is okay because he was a passionate Argentinian musician."