Saturday 28 January 2023

Part of her musical journey: violinist Esther Yoo chats about recording the Barber and Bruch concertos

Esther Yoo and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in recording sessions for their new disc (Photo: Frances Marshall )
Esther Yoo and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in recording sessions for their new disc (Photo: Frances Marshall )

The violinist Esther Yoo has a new disc out, a pairing of Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), conductor Vasily Petrenko and issued on the Deutsche Grammophon label. Both concertos have personal significance for Esther, whilst her relationship with the RPO goes back to 2018 when she was the orchestra's first artist in residence.

The recording started with the idea to record the Bruch concerto, a work Esther grew up with and has known from childhood. In fact, it is the work that inspired her to try to become a better violinist, so that she could produce the noble character and sound that the concerto requires. So, it is very much a part of her musical journey and identity. The Barber concerto is a more recent link, she felt very connected to it as soon as she first came across it. Both works are very heart on sleeve, there is nothing hidden and she feels that both are very relatable. Whilst the two are contrasting in style, they work well together.

There are, of course, plenty of other recordings of both concertos, particularly the Bruch, but then you can say that about other concertos that she has recorded, including the Tchaikovsky and the Sibelius concertos, with fabulous recordings by violinists of previous generations. But equally, Esther feels that every musician has something to say in a piece, the beauty of the repertoire lives on and there is space for each new interpretation. 

Bruch had a fondness for the violin and his love and passion for the instrument's sound is reflected in his numerous other works for violin, including the lesser known Concerto No. 2 and the Scottish Fantasia. Esther has included another lesser known Bruch work in the disc, his Adagio Appassionato for violin and orchestra, which has close musical links to the slow movement of the second concerto. The Adagio Appassionato was a new discovery for Esther, made about the time she started working on the album, and for each of her albums, she tries to include newer works or undiscovered ones. She calls the Adagio Appassionato a fabulous work, and she points to the sense of conflict between the ideas behind each of the two words in the title, Adagio Appassionato.

Esther Yoo (Photo: Marco Borggreve)
Esther Yoo (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

The Barber is something of a virtuoso piece, but Esther does not find it awkwardly written for the violin, so much so that the music is at the forefront and you forget about technique and become immersed in the music itself. She finds a lot of similarities to film music in the work, the opening takes you immediately into an emotional world that carries you to the end of the piece, so listening to the concerto can be like watching a film. The third movement is perhaps the most technically demanding because of the movement's structure, and there is so much energy in the music.

The pairing of the two works is intriguing because both composers wrote their concertos around the same age, Bruch was 28 and Barber was 29, mature but still young. Because of the similarities in the ages, Esther feels that though the composers come from different periods the emotions are similar. And she is 28, so feels in the same zone, the recording just works in every sense.

Also, the programme encapsulates something of her geographical journey, as she was born in the United States to Korean parents, moved to Belgium when she was six, and studied in Germany. The disc includes, as a bon bouche, Souvenir d'Amerique, Op. 17, 'Yankee Doodle' by Henri Vieuxtemps. He was born in Belgium, where she grew up, and the work was inspired by his visit to the USA. She has played the Vieuxtemps concerto, but has no thoughts of recording it, yet, she is too busy with the current disc.

Esther became the RPO's first artist in residence in 2018 and it was an honour to be invited. She did several concerts with the orchestra, including performing the Bruch concerto, as well as education and outreach projects. These latter were very important to Esther, and they created a new piece inspired by workshops with young adults who had been having difficult times with mental health and with eating disorders. So this music as therapy led to a new piece of music which Esther premiered with the RPO, making her time with the orchestra a meaningful and significant year. Often, as a soloist, she simply has a quick interaction with the orchestra, but with the RPO, because they did projects together, she got to know the musicians.

Both the Bruch and the Barber concertos fall into the vein of late Romantic music, a style that feels natural to Esther and she has recorded the Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Glazunov concertos. The Sibelius/Glazunov disc was her first album, she was just 20, and she wanted to choose a repertoire that felt comfortable to her. But as she has developed as an artist and as a violinist she wants to explore other repertoire. She is playing Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 for the first time this season, and next year she will be premiering a contemporary concerto which is being written for her.

Whilst much of her repertoire is familiar, she points out that the journey of any musician is long and that it is a pity to limit yourself to one type of music. So, in addition to classic concertos she has recorded film music, including the soundtrack of On Chesil Beach (the 2017 film directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Ian McEwen with music by Dan Jones), and worked on American pianist and composer Chad Lawson's recent disc, breathe. A disc described as 'a heart-felt invitation to pause and enjoy a cathartic moment of release'.

Chad Lawson originally reached out to Esther because he had seen videos of her performing as well as seeing the videos she released during the pandemic, Artist Confidential. These were videos in which she talked to other young artists about topics such as the pandemic, mental health, overcoming injuries, and financial issues, big subjects that are part of young performers' lives but which are generally ignored in interviews that concentrate on musical projects. Chad Lawson thought that it was important that musicians spoke about these issues, and as he was planning his next album he invited her to be a guest artist on it and they have since become great friends.

Vasily Petrenko, Esther Yoo & Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in recording sessions (Photo Frances Marshall)
Vasily Petrenko, Esther Yoo & Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in recording sessions (Photo Frances Marshall)

Esther is keen to continue working to highlight other areas of musicians' lives. She limited the Artist Confidential series because it was the first time she had ever done such a project, but the response was positive. For her, it is important that we share more about the whole experience of being a musician, regardless of level. She wants to look at concerns, emotions and questions that we all have and feels that it is helpful to hear other musicians talking about these things. As a young student she had so many questions, but all you ever saw was the artist on the stage. You saw the finished product, and got very little information about the process, about how they got there. She thinks that with Social Media, things have opened up somewhat but there is still a tendency to share mainly positive aspects, which are just one part of people's lives.

Another aspect of performing that is important to her is chamber music, particularly with her trio, Z.E.N. Trio (with Zhang Zuo, piano and Narek Hakhnazaryan, cello). She loves playing chamber music and loves playing with her trio. They did a big tour of Australia last year including premiering a piece by the Australian composer Matt Laing, which was specially written for the tour. It was the trio's first endeavour with contemporary music, and she is keen to expand the territory further. The performers in the trio met through the BBC New Generation Artists scheme, and this is their eighth year working together. All three have independent solo careers, but chamber music is vital to them. They do not always manage to meet up a lot, but they try to have one big project or tour each year, to help them grow, and she feels that this is an important aspect of her performing career. The trio has plenty of plans for the 2023/24 season, including their first visit to Korea in October 2023, and then in early 2024 there is a European tour including the Concertgebouw and the Prague Festival, with their Wigmore Hall debut coming during 2024/25 season.

Barber, Bruch - Esther Yoo - Deutsche Grammophon
The week after we spoke Esther had the official album release, followed by performances of the Bruch in Seoul, Korea with the Korean Chamber Orchestra, and then a visit to Bangkok to perform the concerto with the Royal Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. Further dates include a March visit to Colombia, but dates are still being added to her diary. One highlight is the performance of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 1 in the UK in May at the Royal Festival Hall with the Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali, and performing with the RPO in Madrid in April. 

Touring is very much a part of her life and she enjoys it - travelling and visiting places. Her forthcoming visit to Bangkok will be her first trip to Thailand. Some aspects of travelling such as the hotels can get tiring, but it is still a privilege to experience different countries and different cultures, and she realises she is lucky to get these experiences.

When I ask about her musical heroes, her first comment is that she has a lot. She is continually inspired by Maria Callas. Esther finds the voice of the violin relates closely to the human voice and so draws inspiration from singers, from the beauty of the human voice. Amongst the many violinists, she admires she names David Oistrakh and Christian Ferras.

Barber, Bruch - Esther Yoo, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Vasily Petrenko - Deutsche Grammophon [Link Tree]

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