By Luis Vazquez
A young girl is looking up at her mother. She is playing the piano. She watches carefully as she spends a great deal of time with her. This same woman later allowed this young girl to travel alone to the United States at 15 two short years after making her debut in the Seoul Philharmonic.
For this we should all be thankful. A product of a Korean system that mandates that all citizens play an instrument, or sing in leu of one. Now, well in her prime at 30, Yoonie Han, a young South Korean award-winning pianist was the lady in red this afternoon. “My parents believed in me. They never scolded me, very supportive,” Yoonie recounted,”I was homeschooled and I always tried to imitate her.”
The Steinway Piano danced to her touch and the results was a brilliance that could barely be contained in the smaller Steinway Salon at Symphony Space in New York. As Yoonie pointed out, Koreans have had to be imaginative in competing with richer nations. “We don’t have natural resources so we have to do it with our hands or our brains.”
Yoonie played classics, personal favorites, and previously unheard compositions in a delightful 90 minute set that won admirers at the end of the show. If you are not familiar with her style, it was obvious from the first set as she played Christoph W. Gluck’s “Melodie” from Orfeo ed Euridice. Yoonie is not your traditional pianist.
She doesn’t sit straight in her seat. She is hunched forward, caressing the keys with great care. Intermixed is upper body movement which resembles a dancer’s. It turned out to be a spot on observation. “I practiced ballet when I was young, for many years, 15. I stopped because I didn’t have time to do both of them well,” Yoonie shared, “And I got fat.” Yoonie laughed. “That movement helped me a lot to coordinate and it comes naturally.”
Artists tend to choose their favorites to play in performances such as this. For Yoonie, this is an absolute truth. The selections she played from Enrique Granados “Goyescas” can be traced to a teenage girl who lost her passport at 17 in Madrid and soon was exposed on a daily basis to the artist piece that was inspired by a Goya painting. “Its my favorite. I was so young that I didn’t have much to do.”
After discovering the story behind the music she continues to play this regularly. Its a love story starting with “The compliments.” Yoonie explained, “Its between two men and a woman. Its a love triangle. The first movements see them flattering her, singing to, then kissing her.”
“The Girl and the Nightingale” and “Love and Death” are quite self-explanatory. “She sings a song to a nightingale and confesses her love to one person,” Yoonie pointed out, “Then the dramatic duel where they kill each other.”
The next two sets were original compositions. Starting with Karen LeFrak’s “Ombres d’ Ete” which consists of five movements telling the story of a married couple and their life story. “This is a piece about two people who created a life together, spent together, having kids and grandkids.” Han said, “The first movement is coming home, the second, written for Richard LeFrak, her husband, and the third, creating life together, sitting on a couch, looking at the sunset.” The balance of the piece recalls their memory and in the final movement, her acknowledgement of more things to come.
The second personal composition was introduced by the writer himself, Theodore Wiprud, who attended and wrote it for Yoonie who agreed that it was a great idea. The piece, inspired by a painting call “Fumee” by John Singer Sargent, which shows a woman inhaling an incense, while dressed in layers and adornments, gazing into space. “The painting is a beginning place and then you create a piece of music.”
The finale was a famous piece, George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Yoonie responded to a question many asked in comparing the tougher route to playing this, orchestra or solo. “I have to say solo is much harder because you have to manage both orchestra and piano.” Han went on to complete a nearly ten minute demonstration of the complicated piece first written in 1924.
Yoonie Han has a lot of traveling coming up as she is in demand. Should we expect anything less from a woman who owns a bachelor’s degree (Curtis Institute of Music) and Master of Music degree (Juilliard School). But as she prepares to complete her Doctorate at SUNY Stony Brook, she is working on six movements for the Centenary Year of Enrique Granados compilation album. Its going to be quite a year in 2016 for Yoonie Han and her talented hands.