“There is nothing wrong with a bit of glamour and elegance when it comes to the performing arts,” says Korean-born pianist Soyeon Lee. It seems that she believes there’s nothing wrong with a bit of controversy, either, especially when the importance of the issue at hand warrants the extra attention. Concertgoers will remember her 2008 performance at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall when her gown made of 6000 discarded juice containers made headlines.
Using the stage to address issues she feels strongly about may at times run the risk of the spectacle overshadowing the craft. During our conversation on May 21, Soyeon Lee nods in agreement: “All that focus on the dress indeed was a bit too much.” And she continues, “My music is much more important than all the promotional aspects of the concert presentation, even though I really am an adamant believer in the importance of our environment and the cause of its protection as an utmost worthy one. While the concert was so successful in getting exposure and press, it was, of course, not meant as a gimmicky attention grabber.” While commenting on her dress, the evening’s reviews nevertheless applauded her great talent. Says Anthony Tommasini in his February 21 review in the New York Times, “She played with clarity, honesty and a supple yet full-bodied sound. She gave an articulate account of the Bach-Busoni and a rhapsodic performance of Ravel’s ‘Valse,’ which could also be considered a recycled work: the composer adapted it for piano from his original version for orchestra.”
According to Soyeon, her parents knew very early on that she was very strong-headed. Rather than fighting her every step of the way, they gave her a lot of freedom. Her sister, a pop star in her native Korea, and currently studying law at Northwestern University, enjoyed the same freedom, which provided both girls with a healthy amount of self-confidence, and a great sense of joy when performing for others.Talking about her childhood, Soyeon Lee explains: “As a kid I was very vain and liked to watch myself performing with a mirror. I always felt that if it looked right, natural and at ease, the movements were right, too. I did a lot of dance, ballet and traditional Korean dance, and it taught me to move poised and … well, elegant. Today I do a lot of Yoga, and I am looking for fluidity in movement.”
As most South Korean children, Soyeon Lee took piano lessons from age five. Although she wasn’t particularly ambitious, she enjoyed them tremendously. Then, at age nine, Soyeon came with her parents and sister to Morgantown, a small university town in West Virginia. There wasn’t much of an international community in those days, and Soyeon felt lonely and very aware of being different.”My English was bad, the other children constantly made fun of me, and so I retreated to my music. We did not own a piano, but at the university I often sneaked into the music building’s practice rooms. During one Christmas break — there was nobody in the building — this lady approached me and invited me to play for her,” Soyeon recalls. ‘This lady’ was Rumanian piano teacher Marina Schmidt of the university’s preparatory division. Says Soyeon, “She became not only my piano teacher for the next five years, she also made my first concert dresses and gave me an understanding for piano practice.”When her parents went back to Korea in 1994, Soyeon was allowed to stay behind and follow her own dreams. While at boarding school in Interlochen, Michigan, she started playing in competitions, and was eventually ‘found’ by Victoria Mushkatol who now teaches in Juilliard’s preparatory division.“Looking back it was the right decision for me, even though I missed my parents terribly and they were heartbroken to leave me. But maybe that made me work harder for my academics and my musical advancement. I also made friends here that I kept for life. They are by no means all musicians, but they come whenever I am giving performances.”Soyeon really made herself at home at the Juilliard School. Not only did she receive her Bachelor of Music, her Masters degree in music and her Artist Diploma there, but she also won Juilliard’s in-house Rachmaninoff Concerto Competition.In addition, she won two consecutive Gina Bachauer Scholarship competitions, and made her Lincoln Center debut at Alice Tully Hall as the recipient of the Juilliard School’s prestigious William Petschek Piano Debut Award. Since 2004, she has been actively performing as a soloist and chamber musician, and, in 2006, made the cover of Symphony Magazine, which also featured her as ‘emerging artist of the next generation.’ In demand as a chamber musician as well, Soyeon often performs with Grammy-award winning violinist and composer Mark O’Connor. Recently she accompanied her pop star sister Soeun Lee. Soyeon likes to limit performance-related travel, preferring to keep her concerts on a more local basis. “I never intended to have a concertizing career with 150 concerts a year, keeping me on the road day after day. I do well on a regular regimen, and that keeps me emotionally grounded,” she says. That’s why she was very happy when she was chosen to work as a teaching assistant to her former Juilliard teachers, Julian Martin and Robert Macdonald.Her own continuing education will start in 2011, with a Doctor of Musical Arts program at New York’s City University Graduate Center, studying under Ursula Oppens. She is also looking forward to teaching a music appreciation class at Bronx Community College in fall.“I really expect to get a lot out of this. Just as the teaching of the younger students at Juilliard informs my own music making very much, I am excited to inspire the kids, some of whom will hear classical music for the first time. As an artist, I just want to do everything that relates to music.”Soyeon’s next big recital is planned for October 8, 2010, at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall. Titled “Fourtissimo,” this unique four pianists affair will feature Ran Dank, Roman Rabinovich, and Vassilis Varvaersos, all of them close friends of Soyeon. Alternating between solo renditions and different pairings, “Fourtissimo” aims to bring Golden Age-style programming back to the concert stage. Says Soyeon, “There is going to be a story thread, but also interludes of solo pieces and some of the group’s own arrangements. And there is going to be a wide range of musical material, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to Piazzola.” In preparation for the event, the quartet has just finished a photo shoot, directed by photographer Lisa Mazzucco. Curious about the details of the proposed program, I want to know more.This is when Soyeon smiles and falls silent. The last secrets of “Fourtissimo” will be just that for now — secrets.Soyeon Lee’s debut recording, released by Naxos in 2007, features a serious and puristic program of Scarlatti sonatas. Her second CD, released by Koch International Classics, features her ‘Reinvented’ program, showcasing works by composers Ferruccio Busoni, Isaac Albeniz, Maurice Ravel, Sergey Prokofiev, and Juilliard alumni Huang Ruo, among others.