By Hellynn Jung
Blessed art thou, keys of thy grand piano sitting in the 2nd floor performance hall of the Gana Art Center. Rejoice, for thou hath been kissed by the Messiah.
Imagine this: I arrived at the ArtM Concert just in time at 4:50PM (February 18, 2012) to munch on some free pastry and beverages, complements of Hyundai Pharmacy, a sponsor of the consistent monthly events. I attempted to blend in the room full of crowded, mostly older people, the whole of them dressed in black as it seems to be the popular color choice among Koreans during the winter season. By blending in, I mean appear to be filled with sentiment d’espoir.
Excited? Yes, certainly. I’d always been passionate about this particular instrument called the piano because I grew up playing it for years, but I must confess… I didn’t expect the presence of God on Earth that day because I usually fall asleep during classical performances unless I’m the one performing. (Not that I’m any good.)
As we got seated, Grace, my editor whispered to me that today’s performer is one of her favorite pianists. The host of the show additionally mentioned that this was the first time the seats sold out for the ArtM concert, which features different artists every time. Evidently this one was special.
Having started her concentrated studies in piano at Korea National University of Arts at age 16, the Wonju native Yeol Eum Son went on to continue her studies at University of Music, Drama and Media Hanover, one of the most renown arts universities in Germany under the mentorship of Arie Vardi. She has featured with various orchestras including Seoul, New York, Israel and Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestras, and achieved status of international recognition by winning prestigious awards like 2nd place in Tchaikovsky’s National Piano Competition in 2011, Silver Medal at the 13th International Van Cliburn Piano Competition, and 3rd prize winner of the 2005 Arthu Rubinstein International Piano Competition to name a few. In previous publications, she has declared that there is nobody in this world who loves music more than her.
I might have been slightly jaded because I’d been to so many concerts in this country featuring famous domestic musicians, and time and again I had left feeling stoic. But there was no more time to think about anything. Out walked Yeol Eum Son onto the stage from the right corner of the room, and I saw her long colorful dress and sleek black hair flowing behind her through my peripherals. I thought, ‘Beautiful dress.’
The 25-year-old oriental beauty tucked her long straight hair behind her ears as she sat down at the monstrous grand piano. She did this incessantly as if it were some sort of obsessive ritual to prequel what was about to happen. Without any verbal introduction, she took liberty of introducing herself through the keys first instead.
A feeling of electric shock unnerved me as an unprecedented energy spread throughout the silent room of black coats and heads. A powerful emotion ensued with every swift stroke of the key as she played the short but powerful Scarlatti’s Sonata K. 32 in D minor followed by Sonata K. 141 in D minor – and this seemed to be an innate way she might greet all people – a slap in the face with musical madness to wake you up. All eyes and ears of the audience were on center stage, begging for more.
The Piano Messiah hath arrived!
Fortunately, we were guided with actual spoken words in this whirlwind of melodious flurry by pianist and KBS Classic FM host, Ju Young Kim, who hosts every monthly ArtM Concert, and interviewed Son in between the pieces. Finally, someone was speaking our language.
Strangely, her speech unmatched her performance as it was exactly what I would have expected before I got a taste of her performance – a sweet, young girl in her 20s exuding fresh energy, curiosity, and a slightly awkward, yet-to-be fully developed stage presence. The natural and mature delivery on the piano was a stark contrast from her innocent mannerisms and finger fidgeting when telling the audience about what she liked. And like she did many things, which further pointed toward her naïve desire to know everything.
Throughout the two hours of the show, Son performed a diverse range of classical pieces. I was quite impressed with her versatility to play a broad range of music; often, pianists are limited to one genre and oftentimes committed to one composer, but not this one.
Seven very difficult and very different pieces were performed, including Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne Op. 19 No. 4 in C sharp minor and Valse sentimentale Op. 51 No. 6, Chopin’s Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise Brilliante Op. 22, SaintSaens-Liszt’s Danse Macabre, Mendelssohn-Liszt’s Wedding March, and Kapustin’s Variations Op. 41.
Who said classical pianists couldn’t be jazzy? Well, not everyone is born with that rhythmic genius that allows for both genres to be played with ease. The most impressive aspect of the concert was when she jumped from classical to the completely different genre of jazz when showing off her rendition of Kapustin’s Variations Op. 41 from Ukraine. As if jumping all over the grid of classical music wasn’t enough.
When all the music marked on the program brochure had ended, the standing ovation failed to cease. After the official program had ended, I think she came out a total of 5 or 6 times, walking back and forth from the stage time and again, to satiate the thirst of the enthusiastic spectators with extra bows and splashes of harmonious rhythms. The audience was no longer the dull palette of black as we first had entered; our faces were lit with colorful emotions.
This time, I did not leave stoic at all. And I was wide-awake. Boy, had we all been enlightened. We left with an understanding that Yeol Eum Son’s first language was not Korean, English, or German, but rather the language of music. This was how she communicated best – with intricate melodies, full of passion and fury. A youthful energy of spunk was written all over every note, eliciting a spirit of exuberance in the air. She had the ‘it’ factor.
Did I mention a naïve desire to know everything? I hope that it will stay with her for the rest of her life, because in that we find true artists.