by Mike Telin
CityMusic Cleveland opens its 2010-2011 season next Tuesday the 28th of September with six concerts devoted to the music of Beethoven under the direction of director James Gaffigan, who returns after a year’s absence.
These concerts also mark the CityMusic debut of the exuberant violinist Chee-Yun, who told us in a phone interview, “I think I have an ‘I am a student forever’ attitude”. Her love for learning and experiencing new things in life came across as we discussed her initial reluctance to perform Beethoven’s monumental concerto, as well as how teaching has made her a better performer. We also chatted about her guest appearance on the hit sit-com, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, a video of Piazzolla’s Oblivion that some viewers found to be a bit provocative for their tastes, and her upcoming debut with Chris Botti at New York’s legendary Jazz Club, The Blue Note.
Mike Telin: Have you worked with James Gaffigan before?
CY: No, this is my first time, but he is the main reason that my manager and I jumped at the opportunity to play with CityMusic. And the Beethoven is a piece that I want to play more, so this is a really good opportunity for me.
MT: I found an interview that you did for “All Things Strings” 10 years ago, and in it you said that you were not all that crazy about the concerto. What has changed in the past ten years?
CY: I remember that interview and I think I had just finished playing the “Archduke” Trio at the Spoleto Festival. Beethoven’s music is so complex, and I have such tremendous respect for it, but I was a little scared of how my delivery would come across. I have heard really poor performances of the concerto, maybe because the person who was playing it was not mature, and really didn’t really know his other compositions. I have now played his “Kreutzer” sonata a lot, and analyzed the piece to death. So unlike ten years ago, I feel ready to play the concerto, especially emotionally.
MT: So for you it is important to know who you are as a person in order to be the best performer possible.
CY: I think it is very important to know who you are, and to know your limitations at any given time. I think I am pretty aware of myself. I do spend enough time with myself (laughing)! But it is teaching that has helped me to become a better musician. When I was a student I took every word that my teacher said very seriously. Now as a teacher, knowing that whatever I say to my students is going to remembered for the rest of their lives, I’d better say something that is going to be inspiring to them. I do a lot of research on the music that my students are playing, even if they are pieces that I have performed many times. When you revisit a piece you start to notice more things, and that’s when you realize, Oh good! I’m still growing. The day you think you know everything would be the first day of the downfall.
MT: Do you feel that you teach in the same manner that Dorothy DeLay taught you?
CY: I remember my days with Dorothy DeLay very well, and she was one of the greatest teachers I ever had, so if I could even be somewhat similar to how she taught that would be so flattering. I always wish that I could channel her.
MT: Tell how the appearance on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” came about?
CY: Well it happened only because the producer was looking for a violinist for the show. At first they had many possibilities for story lines, but in the end my character was both Larry David’s favorite violinist and his girlfriend. It was so much fun and I really liked doing it. I am a huge fan of the show, and I loved meeting everyone.
MT: I really like the show too.
CY: It is amazing how many musicians are fans of the show. I got calls from friends who were like, “Hey, how did you get on that show? I want to be on that show”. So I had to say, “No, you can’t. That’s my show”!
MT: I also found a great video of you performing Piazzolla’s Oblivion. It’s quite sensual, and certainly caused diverse comments from viewers.
CY: Oh yes, that was taken during a photo shoot in Korea by one of the staff members of my Korean management. She actually did it with her phone camera. We did the shoot between midnight and four in the morning. I had also had a recording session all day and was very tired. I only released the recording in Korea, but it was very popular, and sold about 50,000 copies within two years of its release.
MT: Have you had a chance to look at the comments? I could only laugh at some of the responses.
CY: Yes I have, and it was funny because some people hated it and others loved it. Then they started fighting with each other.
MT: What stuck me was the number of people who were simply searching for Piazzolla, and when your video came up they said things like, “I never heard of this violinist, but I loved it and ended up buying the CD”.
CY: I think the era of classical musicians always being so serious, and only doing certain repertoire and never dabbling into anything else is over. I love introducing classical music to people who never even thought of listening to it. I actually have friends that say; “Wow, I didn’t know classical music could be fun. I’m not trained and I thought that classical music was only for people with trained ears.” I always say no, you just have to have an open mind. I understand that some people get scared away because we have such standards, like God forbid that you clap between movements. You can’t move, and don’t make a sound. But, then you go to the opera and when a great aria is finished, people go crazy and I’m like, “Wait, I want that kind of encouragement from the audience”. When I finish a great technical passage I want people to clap and go crazy.
MT: So is this an invitation you would like me to send to the CityMusic audiences?
CY: YES!! Tell them it would be fine if they clap between movements. We should show that we do appreciate their enthusiasm. I mean, how lucky are we to be on stage playing the music that we love? If the audience responds to it, then we should be happy they are responding to it.
MT: I see that you are doing a number of performances with Chris Botti?
CY: Yes, and when he asked me to play with him at the Blue Note, I was like “Are you serious”?. I have been there many times as an audience member, and the place is legendary, so getting an offer to play at the Blue Note — I would be stupid to turn that down. I’m really psyched.
MT: Have you ever worked with him?
CY: Yes, he needed a violinist for a tour of Asia, and because his manager knew presenters that I knew, he asked me to join him. It was fun because during the tour Chris said, “You’re such a great violinist and it’s a shame the audience doesn’t know this. How about playing something solo that can really show you off?” But I said, “ Chris, I’m playing on this [not so good] violin that is going to be amplified, but OK”. So Chris told that audience how I usually travel with a Stradivarius — which is true — but since we need to amplify the show, she had to borrow an $800 instrument — which was also true– but you need to hear what she really does for her job. So I played the scherzo from the Kreisler Recitative and Scherzo, you know something really fast, and that audience went wild, so he asked me to do this at every concert. I still can’t believe I did it, but you need to be open to new things. You can’t be stuck in your own idea about music making and then be stubborn about it. The more open you are, the more you will learn, and the possibilities are endless.
CityMusicJames Gaffigan leads CityMusic Cleveland in Free, all-Beethoven performances (the Coriolan Overture, the Violin Concerto with Chee Yun and Symphony No. 3) in Cleveland Heights (September 28), Youngstown (September 29), Willoughby Hills (September 30), Cleveland (October 1 & 2), and Elyria (October 3). Future multi-concert cycles in venues around the area begin on December 28 (Joel Smirnoff, conducting, with Kyung Sun Lee, violin & Chabrelle Williams, soprano), March 16 (Smirnoff, with Dylana Jenson, violin), May 10 (Joshua Weilerstein, conducting intergenerational concerts of Margaret Brouwer’s A City Story) and May 17 (Gaffigan, with Matt Haimovitz, cello). For details, visit CityMusic’s website and see ClevelandClassical.com’s concert listings.