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The dichotomy of violinist Chung Kyung-wha

A fiercely brilliant artist on stage, Chung talks about accepting life, joy of children

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Published : 2013-11-15 20:38
Updated : 2013-11-15 20:38

Violinist Chung Kyung-wha poses with Johannes (left) and Clara at her home in Seaoul on Wednesday.
(Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Scooping up her dogs into her arms, Chung Kyung-wha coos “Mi amore, oohhh, mi amore.” Clara and Johannes ― named after Clara Schuman and Johannes Brahms ― respond in kind, lovingly gazing into Chung’s eyes, nuzzling against her neck.

In her sun-filled living room in Seoul, the world-acclaimed violinist is a doting mother of two dogs, delighting even at the sound of Johannes eating a piece of thin wafer.

“Do you hear that? The sound is so beautiful,” she exclaims, unable to resist giving him another piece, just to hear the sound again.

Having completed her first Asian tour the previous evening, Chung is relaxed and “chatty,” as she describes herself. Hardly a word one would use to portray someone known for her fierce and brilliant performances on stages around the world.

“It was the first official professional tour I had in Asia. Next year will be Europe,” says Chung. She will be performing at London’s Royal Festival Hall on Dec. 2, 2014 and engagements in other European cities are being worked out. She also plans to perform in the U.S. Meanwhile, her projects in Korea continue, including the Great Mountains Music Festival of which she is a co-director along with her cellist sister Chung Myung-wha.

“It’s been 10 years since my last concert in England. Last recital there, I gave at the Barbican Hall in 1997, marking the 30th anniversary of winning the Edgar Leventritt Competition,” Chung, 65, recalls. The win in 1967 effectively marked the beginning of Chung’s prolific international career. She has performed with the world’s best conductors and orchestras in the best concert halls around the world, released some 35 albums, including several award-winning records in a career that spans nearly 50 years.

That dazzling career came to an abrupt halt about five years ago when what was initially a minor discomfort in her fingers treated with cortisone cream worsened as she underwent treatment for hepatitis C. The six-month treatment regime left her joints weak during a heavy touring season, exacerbating the condition and she chose to “retire.” She went into teaching and focused on raising her two sons in New York.

To her fans’ great delight, Chung started performing again last year, holding a number of recitals, and with her fingers fully recovered now, this year completed her first official Asian tour, performing in 15 Asian cities.

“It’s a complete miracle,” Chung exclaims. “You don’t know what’s around the corner. You just look forward, be positive, be thankful. Everything unfolds in front of you.”

Her wisdom comes with age and life experiences: In life, there is a gain for every setback.

The departure of her loved ones was “life changing.” It was three years before she recovered from the deaths of her father, manager and teacher, all within 6 months, in 1980-1981. Seven years ago, her closest sister passed away, barely three weeks after being diagnosed with her illness.

“I asked myself ‘Why are we here?’” she recalls. “My purpose had been set at age 6. I felt extremely fortunate and grateful to my mom for this,” she says referring to the doyenne of the musical family who raised seven children with astuteness and foresight.

“After my mid-50s, my conscious effort was to let go, emptying yourself and keep filling yourself at the same time,” she says. “Things I used to be self-conscious about no longer matter. Doesn’t mean I’m perfect. It’s my state of mind.”

Referring to an incident the previous night in which a light on the stage ceiling went out with a loud “pop,” showering large chunks of broken glass on stage ― an incident that could have been very dangerous for the performers ― she says, “Of course it affected my playing but I took it in stride. I saw the large piece of glass near my foot and just pushed it away.”

In her younger days, such an incident would have irritated her greatly, but on Tuesday she just brushed it off. “It was not humiliating for me. I had tried my best. Old age is convenient that way.”

Chung takes her role as a musician seriously; in her description, a musician sounds much like a Greek priestess, a medium between the gods and the people.

“Music is physical. Vibration from the violin runs through the head and the rest of the body. It is a physical deliverance and the public feels the vibration,” she says.

“The purer you are, the quicker you will deliver it to the public.”

Children & love

Career, stardom, legend are all human creations, according to Chung, and in youth, such things do seem like life’s priorities.

“Until my mid-30s, I had to have it. Thirty-five years later, I live for my children. I want them to be proud of me as a mom.” In fact, she used the last five years as a time to focus on her children, at a critical phase in their lives.

The musician’s eyes lit up talking about children.

“When you see children, you see love and hope, ready to receive love,” she says. Her older son married two years ago and she hopes for a grand child soon.

Her 30s and 40s found Chung trying to cope with marriage, children, and career. She cut down on the number of performances, from 120 a year to 40, to focus on recording and raising her children.

“I was serving my public with Asian upbringing but realized that it is not possible to have it all. It simply was not possible,” she says. Her marriage to a British businessman ended in a divorce.

Now, Chung feels old-age companionship is a “very wonderful thing” and admits she is open to the possibility.

“As a human, I love a lot; I am also misunderstood a lot. I have genuine love for my audience. Love is not difficult for me.”

Musically, Chung has found a perfect partner in pianist Kevin Kenner, an accomplished American pianist who toured with her this year. “We began to work together two-and-a-half years ago but it feels longer then that. We are really one voice now,” she says.

“He is a perfect partner ― mature, pure like a child. Very intelligent, very reflective. The opposite of me,” she says.

Their most immediate project is a recording of Schubert Fantasy. “It has to be extraordinarily superb. We’re not in any hurry,” she says. “My dream is to record the unaccompanied Bach. Hopefully this will happen next year.”

“I’ve done more than most people. Now, doing even less and with quality is more important. I have to accept my physical infirmity, inability, because the body does age,” Chung says.

Chung reads a quote from conductor Carlos Kleiber, her favorite artist: “With such superiority that I become totally superfluous/ That is my dream.”

“I discovered this only a few months ago. Had I known this, I woul have bypassed a lot of things, focused even more on what I do,” she says.

By Kim Hoo-ran (khooran@heraldcorp.com)