“I’m not used to having my photograph taken without my flute” laughs Jasmine Choi. She decides to fold her arms as I take her picture in the foyer of the Wigmore Hall. We have met to talk a little about her musical career. She is in London briefly for her Wigmore debut – a big and necessary milestone in any international recitalist’s career.
I did not need to ask my first planned question, which would have been how much support she had from her family in her decision to take up classical music as a career. Her mother is with her, and as we go downstairs to the bar to do the interview she patrols the streets of Marylebone handing out flyers for her daughter’s recital. We suggest she comes back in about 45 minutes.
At 25, Choi has an air of natural confidence and maturity when it comes to interviews. She eases into talking about her childhood in Daejeon without needing much prompting from me. She was surrounded by classical music right from the beginning. Her grandfather was a conductor, founding the Symphony Orchestra in Chongju, her mother is an accomplished violinist and there were plenty of string players in the family. It was natural for her to take up an instrument, and she started playing the fiddle at the tender age of two and a half. But it was when she was nine that she discovered where her real inspiration lay, when she had to play the recorder for a project at school. She took to it like a duck to water, practising till late in the evening – even playing it under her bedclothes. Her parents took note, and young Jasmine was soon playing the flute. Playing a wind instrument had the added advantage that her string-playing family were less qualified to criticize her technique. With this freedom, Choi was soon excelling, and at the age of 12 she went to a specialist school in Seoul, leaving her home town of Daejeon for the first time to live with a distant cousin.
Choi remembers being away from home at that age was tough. “My father told me not to practice so hard” she recalls, turning the normal Korean parental stereotype on its head. But as well as excelling at music she was good at the academic side of things. At 16 came her reward, as she went to Philadelphia to study at the Curtis Institute of Music. Then came the Julliard four years later and the Cincinnatti Symphony Orchestra aged 22.
A frequent recitalist in Korea and elsewhere, she’s in demand with the newspapers. Choi tells me that when she does interviews she’s often booked for 2 hours. Her mother returns at the appointed time, and we have to send her away again so that we can cover the rest of my questions.
When Choi was at Curtis she decided to play some music by Yun Isang, mainly because he was Korean. But she soon found she had an affinity with the music. Sori (“song”), for solo flute, was the first piece she tackled. The published score is heavily notated for the benefit of Western players to help them in mimicking the wide vibrato of the daegeum. For a Korean, such instructions were unnecessary. Choi will be playing another Yun piece next week – Garak, meaning “melody”. But it also means a strand of hair. “It has a lot of notes,” she laughs, echoing Salieri’s apocryphal comment on Mozart and making light of the technical difficulties. The compositional background of Korean traditional music and song is sometimes difficult to access for performers who have not been acquainted with this heritage. But Choi remembers listening to the classical radio station as a child, which interspersed Western Classical programming with Korean traditional music, and she feels that the ethos of Yun’s music comes naturally to her.
As is natural, she gets a lot of support back home. There’s an online fan site – Club Jasmine – and last year she contributed a monthly column to a Korean newspaper about life in America. But despite her fame in Korea, for the moment she’s happy building her career internationally. And she’s getting noticed.
Choi’s mother returns, having exhausted her supply of handbills, and our time is up. Londoners will get the chance to hear Jasmine Choi (최나경) at the Wigmore next week. Mrs Choi will be in the front row.