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[Herald Interview] Violinist Esther Yoo reflects on two years of self-rediscovery

By Park Ga-young

Published : Jan. 30, 2023 - 22:59

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Violinist Esther Yoo performs during a press conference on Thursday. (Mast Media) Violinist Esther Yoo performs during a press conference on Thursday. (Mast Media)

As it did for everyone else, the pandemic affected violinist Esther Yoo in ways that she could have never imagined. The US-born musician did not forsee staying in South Korea for so long or anticipate what that would entail.

Roughly two years in Korea and a time off from her routine of constant traveling and performing changed her “dramatically” and it turned out to be a much-needed time for her, Yoo told The Korea Herald during an interview Thursday.

She rediscovered her heritage and her identity. She delved into new activities like creating content on YouTube and earned a master’s degree in music performance from the Royal College of Music last summer.

Being surrounded by people who looked like her was something Yoo, who spent most of her life in the US and in Europe, experienced for the first time.

“I think (the new environment) pushed me to dig deeper within myself to learn more about who I am and through all of that I think you know (that) any kind of expression of art, it comes from within you," Yoo said.

"It's your story. It's a reflection of yourself and so I think that journey of discovering yourself whatever that may be, whatever form that may take, is really, really important."

Yoo, 28, released a new album on Thursday, her seventh so far. The latest album by Deutsche Grammophon, recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, features music that carries great significance for her, she said. It includes Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, Bruch’s Adagio Appassionato and Vieuxtemps’ Souvenir d'Amerique, Op. 17 “Yankee Doodle.”

“Bruch and Barber both carry great significance for me -- Bruch's Violin Concerto being my childhood favorite concerto and Barber's Violin Concerto being a work I fell in love with in early adulthood,” Yoo said.

"Together, all of the works on this album represent much of my cultural upbringing in the US, Belgium and Germany. This album feels like a beautiful melting pot of my past and present in terms of relationships, repertoire and the journey of finding my own voice," she added.

Yoo fell in love with the violin when she began playing the instrument at age 4 at a Suzuki music school in New York where she spent a lot of time practicing and observing other children’s lessons while waiting for her parents to pick her up.

She showed potential in becoming a meticulous violinist early on, winning her first trophy at a competition at the age of 8. Still, Yoo did not attend a music school or set out on a path to become a violinist. She said she could not pinpoint the exact time that she decided to become a professional musician. Instead, she pursued her music and education at a regular school as she also wanted to do well in her studies and also her parents thought it was important for her to be able to live as much of the normalcy as possible while cultivating her musical studies.

"I think in the long run that helped me have a healthy healthier relationship with my music and what I do because it was not something I was forced to do or like my only option," She said.

The promising violinist went on to become the youngest prizewinner of the International Sibelius Violin Competition when she was 16 in 2008 and one of the youngest ever prizewinners of the Queen Elisabeth Competition at 18. In 2014, she became a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist and in 2018 the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra picked Yoo as its first ever artist in residence.

The young virtuoso admitted that she was a perfectionist. While it might have helped her to become a violinist with a great virtuosity, she said she is trying to actively get away from that now "because as an artist being a perfectionist to me at least I think I was restricting myself and the approach of trying to make art perfect is leaves you very unhappy."

"You'll never really get there. What is perfect? I think that definition itself is so varied for everyone," she added.

Emerging stronger from the pandemic, a freer and more self-possessed Yoo will perform around the world, and even though it is not a concrete plan, she hopes to perform recitals in Korea in the near future.

"Because I lived in foreign countries for a long time, people think I'm a foreigner but I'm still Korean. I hope to have my recitals here soon," she said.