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Interview: Pianist Yoonie Han on Her Debut Album ‘Love and Longing’

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South Korea-born, New York-based pianist Yoonie Han has been creating excitement in the world of classical piano with her powerful and sensitive performances, often with a focus on her tasteful yet fiery renditions of love songs from the classical tradition. Many of these can now be heard on her first studio album, the new Steinway & Sons recording Love and Longing (available at Arkivmusic and iTunes). Recently named an “Album of the Week” on WQXR, it features music by Schubert, Liszt, Prokofiev, Granados and others.

The pianist took some time to answer a few questions for us on her musicality and her career as a rising young pianist.

Yoonie Han in Dolce and Gabbana

Pianist Yoonie Han in Dolce and Gabbana, photo by Christopher Lange

Your new album Love and Longing includes music you’ve favored at concerts for some time. Tell us a little about what some of this music means to you as a musician – and does it mean something personally to you too?

During my career as a concert pianist, nothing so far has compared with the excitement of holding the copy of my first CD, Love and Longing. It’s exhilarating to play for an audience, but when the moment has passed, it exists only in memory. And for anyone who wasn’t there to hear it, it’s as if it hadn’t happened. But the CD is music in tangible form. Plus, unlike live performance, recording an album gives you – and your recording engineer – the chance to go back and revise passages until they are just the way you want them.

At the end of the recording session (which, in the case of my CD, took a week of full-time playing and listening), you know you have something permanent. And when you hold the finished product in your hand, with its cover art and liner notes, you finally have the feeling, for the first time, that people who have never heard you play live, people who have never even met you, can enjoy the music that you have put so much energy and emotion into creating.

How did you come up with the love-themed program?

My album is all about love fairy tales including Romeo & Juliet, Tristan & Isolde, Orpheus & Eurydice, and heartfelt Schubert songs. We all experience love in our lives, it’s a universal theme, and the most beautiful feeling. But love sometimes isn’t there when you wish it to be, and that’s when we feel longing. Some of the selections on my CD celebrate love, some convey the absence of love, expectations of love that has not arrived, memories of love that has been lost. It’s amazing how much these pieces convey about love, and that’s what I want to share with this album.

Your CD release concert included a work written specifically for you. Is this the first time a composer has written a piece for you?

Yes, it’s my first time working with a living composer, and playing a piece specially written for me. Theodore Wiprud and I have been good friends for years. We’d always talked about working together, but never found a perfect occasion. When the Steinway recording label suggested that I include a new piece in the album, I called him right away.

We both love “El Jaleo,” the painting by John Singer Sargent. Ted said that when I invited him to compose a short piece for me, he thought of my performance of Granados’ “Goyescas” (which is the main track on my CD) and my love of Spanish music and art. “El Jaleo,” a stunning take on flamenco music and dance, soon suggested itself to Ted as a point of departure.

Theodore Wiprud’s “El Jaleo” evokes the cultivation, the ornament, the vocal style, and the measured intensification of flamenco dance. The piece traces a gradual acceleration and crescendo to the frenetic moment, el jaleo, captured in the painting. I hear Latin rhythms, coyness, flashy flamenco in this piece. We sat down hours in front of the piano discussing ideas, trying to reflect the painting’s character and emotion in music. What a great experience, I would love to work with composers again!

We’ve talked about your relationship with your music. How would you describe your relationship with your instrument?

As a concert pianist, sometimes I feel I am leading a life of “firsts”: first lesson, first recital, first competition, first concert with a major orchestra, first CD… And along the way are some “firsts” that are disappointments. These are experiences that are part of every career.

But one first that I will never forget is the first time I saw pianos being manufactured, at the Steinway factory in New York City, where concert grands are still made almost entirely by hand, as they have been for well over a hundred years. I’ve studied piano since I was three years old, and so I have always been aware of what goes into the playing of the instrument, but seeing the loving care with which these skilled artisans create pianos made me realize, for the first time, the effort that goes into the creation of fine instruments. Whether it was an artisan shaping a small part with hand tools or half a dozen burly men bending the wood of the piano case, I saw for the first time a process that I — and probably most pianists — take for granted.

You recently expanded from solo concerts to working with a trio as well. What are the rewards and challenges of playing with a chamber group like your Gloriosa Trio as opposed to solo concerts? Are there plans for more trio concerts, or a recording?

Playing as part of a trio is a totally new experience for me. As a solo pianist, you spend most of your time practicing alone in a room with just your instrument for company. But with a trio, you have be in tune – literally and figuratively – with two other people. The three of you have to find a common interpretation of the music, or you’re not really a trio, you’re just three people who happen to be playing at the same time. I’m looking forward to playing with my trio more often and, yes, recording with them someday.

What’s coming up for you in the near future? Where can audiences see you play?

My album was the “Album of the Week” on WQXR. To promote the album, I’m planning a recital tour of Steinway dealerships in the Untied States. I did a shorter version of the tour after I won the Fulbright Piano Competition and it was a success. And I just recorded several tracks from the album for the Steinway “Playback Piano,” a modern version of the old player piano. If you see a Playback Steinway Piano, and hear “Rhapsody in Blue,” that’s me playing!

To make a successful career in the arts, including classical music, you’ve got to do a lot of networking, don’t you? How do you manage that along with all the time you need to spend practicing and concertizing?

Nowadays, everyone in every business talks about the need to network and socialize. And I realize that’s true, even in the arts – in fact, some people would say, especially in the arts. But I think that too often nowadays, aspiring artists get overwhelmed by the business side of things and neglect their artist development. The way I sometimes put it is that they spend too much time at the wrong keyboard. I guess every artist has to start out as her own manager, booking agent, publicist and personal assistant, but you can never let these roles take too much time away from the time you spend on your art itself. You should never lose sight of your dream!

Yoonie Han’s Love and Longing is available at Arkivmusic, iTunes, and Amazon.com. Her upcoming concerts include a Steinway dealerships tour this fall and winter, the Myra Hess Concert Series in Chicago in December, and trio residencies at the University of Georgia, University of Florida, and Shorter University in October.

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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is an Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. He writes the blog Park Odyssey, for which he is visiting and blogging every park in New York City—over a thousand of them. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. By night he's a working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.