Seven years ago, thanks to the London Korean Links events listings, I went to see a young Korean violinist play a lunchtime recital at St Martin in The Fields. The violinist, Joo Yeon Sir, played a beautiful set of classical music accompanied by her pianist Irina Andrievsky. All perfectly lovely. Then came the fireworks – the Porgy & Bess Suite, Igor Frolov’s stunning arrangement of George Gershwin songs. The virtuosity and exuberance of their playing was spellbinding. Coming out of that great church, I felt an exhilaration much like the first time I played mini-golf as a child; an overwhelming feeling of ‘I wanna go again! I wanna go again!’
It has been my great pleasure to ‘go again’ to Joo Yeon Sir’s performances many times, and each one has been an unforgettable musical treat. Being a bit of a cyclist, I have enjoyed combining going to her concerts with some lovely bike rides. For her concert with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, I rode from the New Forest to the Dorset coast; a violin and piano recital in Buxton prompted a glorious day out in the Peak District; and thanks to a recital in rural Norfolk I spent two days in a tent waiting for the torrential rain to stop. You can’t win them all.
Not wishing to break with tradition, I took a pleasant bike ride through central London and Hyde Park recently to meet with Joo Yeon Sir in the beautiful garden of a West London hotel, to interview her ahead of her forthcoming performance of Britten’s Violin Concerto with St Paul’s Sinfonia in Greenwich on 16th June.
Starting at the beginning, can you tell us about your earliest musical memories?
I grew up as one of the ‘Mozart kids’, which was very fashionable back in the day in Korea, playing classical music to newborns. My dad owned a record player, and he couldn’t understand why the needle kept wearing down so quickly. My mum told him she had been playing his LPs for the babies. So, although I have no actual recollection, I’ve been told I grew up listening to a lot of classical music.
Also, my mum is an amateur pianist. Again, I don’t know if it’s my real memory, or because people have told me so many times that I used to sit on my mum’s lap and marvel at her arpeggios, her hands all over the keys. I was just fascinated that you could create sound. I carried on playing the piano, practising with her, and then at pre-school and after-school piano lessons in a hagwon (Korean private academy). I just loved making sound. When I played at a little competition in the hagwon, the whole room went silent – it felt so cool and magical that I could make people listen.
Then one day I saw a violin on the TV, and I asked my mum ‘what is that?’. And the rest is history! When my parents could see that I was interested in the violin, they bought so many CDs of all the violin repertoire – by Kyung Wha Chung, Sarah Chang, Maxim Vengerov, Hilary Hahn. I had this big collection, and every single piece was like, ‘I wanna play that!’
You moved with your family to the UK when you were nine, to study music at the Purcell School. How was that transition to a new country and culture?
Well, when I arrived I didn’t know much English. But I didn’t understand the concept of ‘being uprooted’. It was just like my parents saying ‘we’re going’ and I was like, ‘Oh, OK.. oh, we’re here now!’ So it wasn’t something I’d foreseen or dreamt of. I was put into Purcell, and I was like ‘Oh here I am. New friends. OK!’ It worked out well!
Well I’m grateful!
Me too, me too!
But it must have been such a huge change at a tender age. Was it daunting, overwhelming, exciting, or all of the above?
I didn’t have anything to compare it with. It was rather exciting and the UK was such a welcoming place. I was really fortunate because Purcell is very international. It wasn’t just me who couldn’t speak English, and they were very supportive – ‘It’s OK, you’ll be fluent, we’ll get you there’. And music was the common language of everyone. I was lucky to be surrounded by a network of international people, so I was never made to feel ‘foreign’. I was also fortunate that I was a home student and had my family with me. Some of the boarding students must have found the transition tougher.
Now I go back to Purcell on a weekly basis to teach. My students all say, ‘it’s so nice because we have people from all over the world’. It’s a real community.
Growing up, did you feel you had dual nationalities? Were you comfortable with being British and Korean?
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s growing up in the 2000s, but there was an idea of internationalism which I fully embraced. I did go through a time of ‘Who am I? Do I need a nationality? How do I identify myself?’ It’s different if you see yourself as just one category of the other, but I feel like anything and everything. I feel very Korean, I feel very British at times, and I very much feel like a Londoner!. If I’m cynical about it, I’m a foreigner everywhere, but I look at it positively: I belong everywhere.
You have a special relationship with Felix Andrievsky, who was your violin teacher at The Royal College of Music, and his wife and your pianist Irina Andrievsky. I’d love to hear more about their influence in your life.
They play a big role in my identity and have had a profound impact on my life. I met them when I was 14 and have known them ever since. I call Felix ‘my Russian grandpa I never had’. He’s very dear to me, and has really instilled in me the love for playing music. In lessons he dances around, he sings. If you look him up on the RCM website he looks serious, but he’s the most loving person. I think anyone who has studied with him would describe him as the funniest man, and the kindest man. He’s really been there for me. Growing up in London under his wings is one of the reasons I don’t identify in a particular way – it’s an international mix.
Within a week of being his pupil, he asked me to write down all the music I’d like to learn. You know that big CD collection I had? I wrote them all down and came back with three pages worth. He’d never had any student write down so many! ‘You do realise this will take you at least ten years?’ Poor mum every week would be photocopying the music. It really inspired me to have that goal: ‘I want to learn all these concertos and sonatas, all the pieces that have inspired me’. And he introduced me to all sorts of violin repertoire, not just Russian or British. I’m happy to say we covered most!
Irina is also so important. It’s really wonderful to work with her, for nearly 15 years now. It’s a very special connection we have, and we feel it when we play.
I read somewhere that Felix had told you, ‘never give a bad performance’. How do you go about never giving a bad performance?
I think what he means is that firstly be 150 per cent – at least – prepared, so that you can lose 50 and still have 100! It’s something that suits me very well and I try to pass on to students. A performance is not something that happens out of thin air, you need to have the preparation. It gives peace of mind if you’ve done your very best to prepare for a concert. And you’ve got to be committed to entertain those people who have given up their precious time to be with you in that room. You need to do your very best job, it’s not ‘just another gig’.
As an audience member I really feel that with you – the communication and commitment. I can honestly say that every performance I’ve seen you at has felt like a special occasion. I think audiences can feel that.
Yes, I’m sure they do. It’s my commitment to you, the audience, to do my utmost best. Not for me, so that we can all have a good time. And there’s another dimension to what Felix said. He said, ‘Once you’ve experienced a bad concert, it can stay with you. So if you can avoid having any kind of bad experience, why wouldn’t you?’ I’ve fortunately been able to adhere to his saying on that!
The violin is the one instrument I worry about when I see a performance. The positioning of the hand over the neck looks so weird, and there’s no frets to guide your fingers – it looks nigh on impossible to play!
The positioning is weird. It’s not the most comfortable instrument to be playing. But the violin has what Felix calls the expressive intonation, whereas the piano has a fixed intonation. A piano player will never be out of tune, and if they are it’s not their fault. They have a free ticket on that! But he said we’ve got a very expressive instrument, it can be a little bit sharper or a little bit flatter to help the melodic line or accompanying role be that bit more expressive. That has really stayed with me. I see it as a good thing.
This leads me on to ask about the violin you play.
I like it very much! It’s a wonderful violin by Matteo Goffriller. He was more famous for making cellos, but this is one of his lovely violins. I’m extremely fortunate to have been playing it over ten years thanks to a wonderful gentleman who came to one of my concerts and said, ‘you need a better violin’. When I met this violin I thought, ‘it’s really really nice!’ It’s a bit like Harry Potter and the wand, the instrument chooses you rather than you choose it! It’s had a profound influence on the way I play, but I think it’s also adapted to me.
The pandemic was quite a special time for me, when I was completely cut off from everything. The violin and multiple other things such as teaching on Zoom had an influence on me, and changed the way I play. I feel it began a new chapter.
Of course, your third and latest album is titled ‘Solitude’, and is in some ways a reflection of your experience of the pandemic.
Absolutely. I’ve always been interested in solo violin music. The likes of Ysaye, Bach, Paganini – I was drawn to their works. There’s something different and special about playing alone on stage, when you’re not used to it. Two of my best friends from college, guitarist Laura Snowden and pianist Natsumi Ikenaga, both play solo instruments. Whenever I go to their solo concerts, I’m like, ‘Guys how do you do this? How do you play 60 minutes at a time, and everything in that hall is coming from you?’ I used to find that utterly amazing, and when I tried to emulate that with solo violin it was like, ‘Whoa! That was really hard!’ But I did find myself more and more attracted to it, so I had always been planning a solo album. And then Bam! The Pandemic. ‘Oh I really don’t have any choice now’.
I learned all the solo violin works I’d always wanted to learn, and I built the repertoire around the album. It was also especially profound to me because I put my own work ‘My Dear Bessie’ on it, and I commissioned Laura to write a special piece, ‘Into The Fog’, and all the other solo works I’ve always admired very much.
The thing that really touched me about the reviews of ‘Solitude’, were comments like, ‘I didn’t think I’d enjoy solo violin so much but I really did’. That was the general vibe, and I was like, ‘Hallelujah! Thank you so much!’
Let’s talk now about your forthcoming concert with the St Paul’s Sinfonia in Greenwich on 16th June. Since I’ve been coming to your concerts, I don’t think you’ve performed Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto?
True. This is the first time. I learned it during my college days. And then Andy (Andrew Morley, conductor) got in touch to re-invite me. I think this is my fourth time with him and the St Paul’s Sinfonia, and I also performed with him when he conducted the Wimbledon Symphony Orchestra. This time, Andy asked me to suggest a concerto I’d like to play. I was like, ‘Ooh in that case can we do the Britten?’
The first time I heard Britten’s Violin Concerto, I thought, ‘What a cool piece!’ It’s quite unlike the greats of Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and all those. It’s one of his early works, and I was amazed by his fantastical and colourful orchestration. A small motif introduced by the timpani spans over the whole concerto and is shared in different ways, not only by the solo violin line, but by all different members of the orchestra. It’s just fabulous and I’m really excited!
- Joo Yeon Sir performs Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto with St Paul’s Sinfonia conducted by Andrew Morley, at St Alfege’s Church in Greenwich, on Friday 16th June. More information and tickets: www.stpaulssinfonia.com
- More UK concerts and recitals are set to be announced, but London Korean Links can exclusively announce two forthcoming dates:
- October 1st with Royal Tunbridge Symphony Orchestra. Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Tickets go on sale 25th August, but you can get first dibs on 14th July if you subscribe to the orchestra’s newsletter: rtwso.org
- October 17th with Irina Andrievsky at the Lichfield Chamber Music Festival. Works include Frolov’s Porgy & Bess Suite: lichfieldfestival.org
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- Website and newsletter sign up: www.jooyeonsir.com