Interview: Pianist Yoonie Han on Interpreting New Compositions ‘Gloriously’ Dedicated to Her
Yoonie Han had been invited to perform some of her most recent repertoire in 2006 at a private house concert in New York when she first met Theodore Wiprud. Yoonie immediately observed his keen listening capacity and personal demeanor.
As the New York Philharmonic’s Vice President of Education, Wiprud wears many hats: educator, concert presenter and music executive. Through his own compositions, he further impacts the musical world with creative works that reflect his widespread interaction with listeners of all ages.
It wasn’t until a few years later, though, that the two reconnected over “the other keyboard,” as Han calls her widespread activities on social media’s still most dynamic resource, Facebook.
Through “friending” each other, Han won a supportive listener and advisor in Wiprud, for whom she started to play through her repertoire, and who became an able consultant to her. Wiprud gave Han advice on many musical themes, but also on how to develop her speaking skills, which are becoming increasingly important for performers who introduce works to new audiences.
After Han became a Steinway artist in 2012, Wiprud dedicated his composition “El Jaleo” to her. It also appears on Han’s 2014 debut recording on the Steinway label. The piece was written in 2012, sparked by the painting with the same title by John Singer Sargent, a work that depicts a Spanish woman about to launch into an impassioned flamenco song and dance, surrounded by an enthusiastic audience of musicians and spectators (“Jalear” in Spanish means to encourage a performer with cries and clapping.)
“Right before that, Ted heard me perform Spanish music, a musical genre I felt particularly close to, after I had been stranded in Spain for several months without [my] passport and experienced great, totally unexpected hospitality,” says Han. “I indulged in daily visits to the local museum and familiarized myself with Spanish culture, and upon my return to New York, I delved into my pianistic resolve and into Goyescas,” says Han.
“‘El Jaleo’ however was a work we debated about together, endlessly. I loved the fact that Ted was inspired by my playing of Enrique Granados’s Goyescas to write a Spanish-flavored piece for me. But I wondered how this is going to work: Where does the performer come into the composition process, with a living composer who writes the piece for me?”
Han had raised a valid concern: Wiprud is a pianist, however how was he going to negotiate technical difficulties with the particular performer in mind?
“Many times we discussed my comfort level with his writing for me: ‘How far can you reach,’ he texted me, ‘can you comfortably cross…do you cross up or down…’ Sometimes I demanded a change of his sheer seemingly impossible demands.”
After working at Lincoln Center, Wiprud would often come over to Han’s apartment on the Upper West Side to discuss everything from fingerings to the general concept of the piece, which appears on her disc titled Love And Longing, and was premiered in concert at the Harvard Club.
This November, at Steinway’s new salon series at Symphony Space curated by music journalist and pianist Jed Distler, Han again included a piece written for her by Wiprud in her program of mostly Spanish music. Also inspired by a painting by Sargent, this one is titled ‘Fumée d’Ambre Gris.’
This tranquil composition’s trills and expanding chord progressions face up to the painting’s motionless female figure in its contemplative state, depicted in masterly shadings of white light and grays by the painter. Dressed in layers and adornments amid the work’s North African setting, the woman gazes into an empty space before her, somberly inhaling the intoxicating, earthy vapor of the ambergris fragrance emerging from an incense-burning vessel.
“For this piece, we did not labor together in the same way we did for the first one,” Han says. They already had established a working relationship, and for this piece, Wiprud just sent the score to Han electronically when it was completed.
A third composition is in the works, which will round out a cycle inspired by Sargent’s collection of female figure paintings, which Wiprud came across at an exhibition at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, MA.
Wiprud’s most recent work for Yoonie Han is not based on Sargent. It is a piece for Han’s Gloriosa Trio and is named for a flower found in her hometown, Jeju Island in Korea. “I composed ‘Vinea Gloriosa’ as a brief, brilliant signature work for the Gloriosa Trio,” says Wiprud in his description of the five-minute work for violin, cello and piano: “I was struck by the extravagant beauty of the flower from which the trio takes its name, an improbable lily that grows in wild profusion in some tropical climes. I set the opulence of its flower in counterpoint with the tenacity of its tendrils – snaking vines adorned with blossoms. The title – Latin for “glorious vine” – invokes not the actual name of the plant, but my two-fold inspiration.”
Another composer’s work for the trio, titled ‘Gloriosa,’ by philanthropist, educator and composer Karen LeFrak, adopts the trio’s name for a composition that expresses the flower’s vital power to rejoice in its blooming lifecycle. Han performed another miniature cycle by LeFrak at Symphony Space, her work ‘Ombres d’Éte.’ These shadows of summer show the composer’s heartfelt, lyrical and subdued approach to an untainted mood piece, with only slightly nuanced variations to its pure, innocent, sometimes nostalgic allure.
Wiprud’s ‘Vinea Gloriosa’ entails a completely different approach: The piano follows its main melodic path, while the lines of the trio’s cello and violin “vines” intertwine mysteriously, and at times threaten to mischievously envelop the melody into a dense and restrictive “sleeping beauty”-esque untamed growth, also reminding us of the possible poisonous effect of the flower’s medical attributes and its nickname, “firebird.”
It comes as no surprise that both composers’ pieces for Han’s lyrical, softly outspoken pianism recognize aspects of her personal, capable performance style and characteristic traits, recognizing also that every performer also displays a bit of him/herself in performance.
Wiprud had introduced Han to LeFrak, who has written another piece, ‘Going Latin,’ to go along with Han’s next project of Enrique Granados’ Goyescas.
Han is looking forward to premiere ‘Going Latin,’ and to further collaborations with LeFrak, who has impressed Han with her incredibly efficient and speedy delivery of new works: “I love working with Karen. If I need another movement to make a program run a little longer, I just tell Karen,” Han says. “A day later, the movement will be ready, and it’s perfect. She’s faster than Mozart!”
In her heartfelt, yet humorous account of coming to the U.S. by herself as a 15-year-old performer to fulfill the promise of a pianistic career, one can sense Han’s resolve, but also her gratitude towards the many people in her life who have embraced her; she embraces in return. Han is not one to forget close encounters easily, or dismiss those who have had such a positive impact on her evolving career and her life.
Over the years, Han has interacted with numerous host families that have taken her into their hearts, and she keeps in regular contact with all of them. They call her “Korean daughter.” Her loyalty to those who have showed her kindness explains the large following of her concerts by her friends and loved ones.
The Gloriosa Trio, founded by Han, violinist Jennifer Carsillo and cellist Kevin Bate, has turned out to be a remarkable artistic collaboration.
Since their debut in January 2014 on the Flagler Music Series in Palm Beach, Florida, their carefully integrated thematic programs have been received extremely well by audiences and critics alike.
More than anything, the trio has been struck by the way audiences have responded to the group’s great chemistry. Says Han: “Being a pianist can be such a solitary pursuit; chamber music, on the other hand, can broaden the ways in which one thinks about and express oneself as a musician. It also opens the door to more performance opportunities, rather than pursuing a career purely as a soloist.”
The Gloriosa Trio will include the above-mentioned pieces composed for the trio in its performance at GetClassical’s concert series at ZincBar on January 11, 2016.