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Interview: Yoonjung ‘Yoonie’ Han, Winner of the Washington Piano Competition and Fulbright Concerto Competition

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Concert pianist Yoonjung “Yoonie” Han can hardly keep track of all the competitions she’s won, but an up-and-coming classical musician can never rest on her laurels. Life for Yoonie is an endless cycle of practicing and marketing, marketing and concertizing, traveling and marketing and practicing and networking and yet more marketing.yoonjung_han

After seeing her perform twice recently in New York City, I caught up with Yoonie to find out more about her life and career so far.

Congratulations on your latest honor, first prize at the Washington DC International Competition for Piano. Winning piano competitions has become something of a habit with you, hasn’t it?

Yes and no. I’ve been going to competitions since I was nine. I got my first gold medal at that age at the Samick Piano Competition, Korea. If I try to count…I’ve done about 50 competitions. In a third of them, I didn’t even pass the initial round. In another third I didn’t get past the semifinal. In the other third, I got first prize.

Some people are against going to competitions, because arts are not sports that you can judge by the number of mistakes or speed of playing. It’s truly judged by personal preference. And by going to competitions, some lose the primary goal: creating beautiful music, having a personal voice. Instead they become mechanical musicians who play faster than others, louder than others, and have no personality in music, which may be disagreeable to juries.

I still go to competitions, because I believe it’s a wonderful (the fastest!) way to introduce yourself to a musical world, and find new opportunities. And the preparation is such a discipline, a challenge to yourself.


Yoonjung Han plays Chopin’s Piano Sonata Number 3 (Part 1 of 4) at Lincoln Center

Are the cash prizes more important, or is it the local recognition that comes from winning a competition in a particular place?

I’d say both!

Since I came to the U.S., I haven’t paid any tuition. I won the F. Nordmann Scholarship Competition at the Juilliard Pre-college, went to Curtis (where everyone gets a full scholarship), and won the Gina Bachauer Scholarship Competition at Juilliard.

But more important than prize money is future engagements. I had my debut at Lincoln Center as a part of a prize from the World Piano Competition, will have my Kennedy Center debut as part of the Washington International Competition, and I’ve played with the Helsinki Philharmonic, Houston Symphony, and Buffalo Philharmonic from winning competitions.

You grew up in South Korea. When did you start studying piano, and when did you know you wanted to be a concert pianist?

I started on the piano when I was three. It’s not unusual in Korea. I knew when I was 15 that becoming a concert pianist is what I wanted to be. Then I moved to the U.S. for more opportunities and higher education.

When you came to the United States at age 15, what were the circumstances? Did you come straight to New York, or live somewhere else first? And where have you lived during your career?

It was no fun at all! I was just a little girl who didn’t even know how to use a dishwasher, or a rice cooker. I enjoyed the freedom from parents, spent most of my time watching Korean dramas, spending money at Krispy Kreme…

I came to New York, and went to the Juilliard pre-college, then Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia for my bachelor of music degree. I did my masters degree at Juilliard, got an Artist Diploma at Universite de Montreal, and now am working on my DMA (doctor of musical arts) at SUNY.

Did you find adjusting to life in the U.S. difficult?

Yes, loneliness is the most harsh thing for me.

In 2006 I visited Mississippi for a concert, and stayed with a host family. There was something that made us feel like a family immediately, and they are the warmest southern people ever! They have three sons, and always wished to have a daughter, so they call me “Korean daughter” and I call them “American mom & dad.”

When you travel a lot, the first things you miss are your own bed and your family. I keep in touch with all host families I’ve stayed with, and thank them for treating me like their own family.

What do you consider your greatest professional accomplishments so far?

Being able to keep pursuing my dream, and not allowing myself to give up—I respect, encourage, and discipline myself—it’s even harder than winning first prize in major competitions!

But talking about professional accomplishments: I have a passion for Spanish music, and am starting on a recording project including Federico Mompou’s fabulous Variations on a Theme by Chopin (1951). This piece is almost completely unknown, yet it immediately becomes a favorite of everyone who hears it. Mompou is a very special composer—his music has an almost shy quality, with enormous depth of feeling behind a simple and accessible surface. There is only one existing recording of this piece, and it gives me great pleasure to introduce audiences to it.

The music of Albéniz is some of the greatest Romantic piano music, richly rooted in Spanish folk music, but translated into a thrilling and distinctive virtuoso style. This music is much too little known, and everyone who hears it loves it. I am playing his Spanish Dances—Oriental, Andaluza, Tango.

Falla’s Ritual Fire Dance, transcribed by Falla for the great Artur Rubinstein, is one of the Spanish piano repertory’s greatest hits—unlike the other pieces on this program, this one is quite familiar—but it is so much fun to play and to hear that I can’t resist including it.

And then there is Granados—one of the very greatest of all piano composers—but how many general listeners are familiar with his masterworks? Not enough!

Who are your musical role models?

My mother. I am glad that my mother wasn’t a typical Asian “tiger mom”—she never forced me to practice. She not only provided the best teaching, but arguably helped me to realize that I am as free as my imagination. And this spiritual freedom was what I loved and enjoyed the most about playing the piano. My mother found that the music is something very beautiful and lovable in which people can not only get lost but also get out of mundane daily life. Her willingness to transform and influence the lives of people through music became my mission to become a musician.

Who were your teachers, and how did they influence you?

Victoria Muskatkol and Min Kim, my first teachers in the U.S., developed my technique and musicality. They also took care of me, invited me to their homes, called and checked on me. I studied with Mrs. Eleanor Sokoloff at Curtis, she’s 98! She’s generous like a sweet grandma figure to everyone at Curtis. I also studied with Robert McDonald at Juilliard, the most sincere, respectful, and devoted teacher ever! And with Jean Saulnier in Montreal, he’s special. Studying with him is a very inspiring yet intense experience. Whenever I go to a lesson, I get eager to practice, and realize how much there’s more to discover in playing.

Tell us a little about some of your favorite repertoire, and why you love it.

I’d say Goyescas by Granados. It’s inspired by Francisco Goya’s paintings in Madrid, and it’s Spanish nationalist composer Enrique Granados’ piano masterpiece. Granados composed this six-piece suite in 1911 and adapted it to opera four years later. I have fallen in love with Goyescas‘ distinct Spanish culture, color, and rhythm, and in preparing these pieces I immersed myself not just in Spanish music but also in Spanish art and literature and film. This music is very dramatic. In the opera version, two men meet a woman, flatter her, and fall in love with her. But eventually love turns into a duel to the death between the suitors, and the woman’s true love dies in her arms.


Yoonjung Han plays “El Amor Y La Muerte” from Granados’ Goyescas – part 1 of 2

Have you spent time in Spain?

Yes, I love Spanish music. There are so many intoxicatingly wonderful pieces for the piano that are not yet as well-known as they should be, but also because it is a repertoire for which I have an intense personal love.

What’s the most fun piece you’ve performed recently?

Schumann’s Carnaval. It has 22 sections portraying characters and scenes from the pre-Lenten Carnival festival. The music ranges from passionate (“Florestan”) to fantasy to poetry (“Eusebius”), and is filled with a wonderful biting humor—the swooning rubatos of “Chopin,” the over-the-top teenage intensity of “Chiarina” (the 13-year old Clara Wieck), the mock Beethovenian heroics of the “March of the Davidsbündler.” The music does not just represent a Carnaval—it is one, a Carnaval in music, full of the joy of life.

What’s the nicest compliment you ever got?

My friend is taking care of my website and YouTube—I met him at the Van Cliburn Competition in 2009. Even though I didn’t advance to the next round, he appreciated my playing which [meant something] personal to him. Since then, he has been helping me connect to internet sources so that more people in the world can see me. Also, someone I met recently at my concerts said that the next goal of his life is getting me on the road, and is very enthusiastic about my career. I have many fans send me cheerful emails, which touches me because I think they mean how much they are moved by my playing.

What challenges do you face when building a career as a classical soloist?

It’s very demanding. One has to devote oneself, make a commitment that practicing is the first thing you have to do, but also be efficient about networking.

On the stage, it’s not only playing the piano well, it’s important to connect to the audience, not only through the pursuit of one’s artistry and virtuosity, but by sharing personal feelings and encouraging the listeners to discover their own path.

We all know how important image is for the career of a pop artist, but it’s also important for a classical soloist, isn’t it? Do you have some thoughts on that?

Of course!

We say the audience can tell from the moment the artist comes on the stage. Successful image creation first comes from a wonderful stage presence. It’s not about how you look; when you have a distinguishable personality, when you respect, love, and have confidence in yourself, it shows.

When we talk about Alicia de Larrocha, for example, Spanish music comes to mind first, and when we talk about Brahms, we picture a big man with a cigar sitting on the piano. I think there are certain images for every artist. I am still figuring out what mine should be…!

I know you spend a lot of time practicing, but also a lot of time promoting and marketing yourself. Is that exhausting? How do you manage it?

It’s not exhausting, it’s fun!

I do it not because it’s my job, but because it’s for my career. And, having a great career is the priority in my life.

Every day, I spend an hour on my Facebook fan page, an hour learning French or Italian, and at least three times a week, I meet friends for dinner. Networking with various people is the best way to promote and market yourself, and you learn a lot from them, too.

I got a chance to play a solo recital at Lincoln Center from winning a competition, but [the organizers] disappeared one month before the concert. I was absolutely in a panic — no idea where to send press releases, or [about] designing flyers, and ticketing. It was a nightmare! In the end, I was able to have a successful concert through my teachers’ and friends’ help. But I realized that I must learn and discover ways to promote myself. Yes, practicing is the traditional way to get your name out, but you cannot ignore the importance of marketing.

When I was at Curtis and Juilliard, I spent eight hours in the practice room (most musicians just never get out of practice rooms), so at the end of a day I was so tired that I didn’t even want to make a call to say hello to friends. Playing superb concerts is important, but if you have no one to invite to your concerts, it’s not great either. Now I think that meeting friends and having other interests is not a waste of time!

This year you’re making several debuts with orchestras and festivals in Europe. How are audiences in Europe compared to in the U.S. and Canada? What about in Asia?

I think in any country, when the music feels right, people want to give a standing ovation. Don’t they?

If you couldn’t be a musician, what would you be?

Oh, I don’t know…But whatever I would be, I’d always want to be a musician!It’s so fascinating to have a tool connected to your body, controlled to be speaking your soul.

Finally: is there anything else you’d like classical music fans to know about you?

My nickname! All my friends call me “Yoonie.” I keep my professional name “Yoonjung Han,” but if you see me at concerts, please call me Yoonie!

Find out more about Yoonjung Han and her concert schedule at her website.

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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.
  • Jordan Richardson

    Nice interview, Jon, and great clips too! Now I’ve got yet another remarkable talent to check out.

  • Leroy

    Terrific article, Jon!

    You really communicated the enthusiasm of your subject and inspired me to dig further.

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    Happy to turn people on this special talent!

  • qlink

    I agree with leroy, you are great

  • Gloria K.

    Hi, I met Yoonie 2 years ago in a funny way and eventually became friends. I have gone to a few of her concerts, and own one of her CD’s. I would like to point out that not only is she an incredible musician but also an incredible person. The warmth and depth of her music comes from the traits innately embedded within her. She is so genuine and delightful to be around and I cannot emphasize how deeply she treasures the relationships she has with others. Mr. Sobel, applaud you on this terrific article where I believe you have conveyed to readers not only the “awesomeness” of her music but also the “awesome” of her character.

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