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Interview: Cellist Brian Yoon says music of our time is most attractive to younger audiences

By John Terauds on November 13, 2012

25-year-old Canadian cellist Brian Yoon has two Toronto concert dates this week (Mélanie Provencher photo).

A combination of luck, talent and hard work won Brian Yoon the principal cello chair at the Victoria Symphony a year before he finished his Master’s degree. Then he won the 35th Eckhardt-Grammaté National Music Competition in Brandon, Man. Toronto gets two concerts out of his winner’s tour this week.

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

Yoon shakes his head at the challenges and good fortune of the past year.

Six weeks into the Victoria Symphony season, the 25-year-old principal cellist is taking three weeks off to complete a nine-city winner’s tour with pianist Eliza Ching. The Toronto concerts are at Gallery 345 on Friday night (Nov. 16) and the Great Hall at Hart House on Sunday afternoon.

The programme features pieces from the Eckhardt-Grammaté competition. Yoon won the prize for best interpretation of the required piece, String Thoery, commissioned by the competition from composer John Burge. Other Canadian works the cellist performed in the contest were Elizabeth Raum’s Prayer and Dance of Praise and Stigmata by Vincent Ho.

These and Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for Cello and Piano feature in both Toronto recitals. The audience at Gallery 345 will also hear the Variations on a Theme of Rossini by Bohuslav Martinu, while the Hart House crowd gets Toronto composer Gary Kulesha’s …and dark time flowed by her like a river… .

There isn’t a stitch of Bach or the 19th century in these concerts.

“I’ve always been interested in new music,” says Yoon.

When he arrived at the University of Ottawa for his undergraduate degree, Yoon suggested to his teacher that he wanted to focus on music of the 20th and 21st centuries. “I find it to be more relevant to modern audiences,” he observes.

The cellist says he has noticed that his friends who are not connected in some way to classical music respond much more naturally to contemporary art music. “These are sounds they’ve grown up with,” says Yoon. “The language of the music may be different from what they’re used to, but the sonorities and the range of expression connect with my generation.”

The 20-something also likes the fact that most of his audiences will not have heard most of these pieces before.

“This means they don’t have a reference point, so it’s my job to help the audience understand the music and make a connection to the composer, who is still alive,” Yoon explains.

All the while this season, Yoon has had to learn and perform the repertoire of the Victoria Symphony. Although he played in the student orchestra in Ottawa, as well as during graduate school at Rice University in Houston, Tex., all the repertoire over the past six weeks — save for one piece — has been new, making for many extra hours of practice time.

Yoon won the Victoria Symphony auditions for a principal cellist only one year into his two-year Master’s programme. “I was learning so much in school, I asked them if they could wait a year until I finished,” he recalls. In that second year, Yoon entered and won the Eckhardt-Grammaté contest.

The cellist was 9 when his family emigrated to metropolitan Vancouver from his native South Korea.

Like many youngsters, his parents had started him off on piano lessons in Korea when he was 6. “I only lasted a couple of months, I hated them so much,” he smiles.

A few months later, at a family gathering, a cousin was entertaining the crowd with his flute. “He was getting a lot of attention and I decided I wanted that kind of attention, too,” Yoon smiles. His mother gave him a choice of violin or cello.

Yoon singles out Vancouver Academy of Music’s Judith Fraser as his favourite teacher. “She has been the biggest influence on my development as a musician — and as a person,” he adds.

He says his musical awakening came around the time he was 14 or 15. Instead of needing to be pushed by others, he found an inner passion for his instrument and music that kept him going. Even so, he enrolled in a Science programme at the University of British Columbia and followed that for two years, all the while practising cello two hours a day and taking a couple of lessons a month — “whenever I could find the time,” he adds.

But the siren call of music was too strong. He opted for a fresh start at the University of Ottawa, discovering that, “music was engaging me so much more.”

There’s no lack of great repertoire for the cello, but this hasn’t stopped Yoon from indulging in his other favourite activity: creating transcriptions.

Because he had the luxury of having a full-time orchestral position waiting for him at the end of graduate school, he could indulge, including creating a transcription of J.S. Bach’s famous Chaconne from the Second Partita for solo violin. “There are several transcriptions out there,” Yoon says, “but something never felt completely right for me, so I made my own.”

He is also making the music of our time his own — and it’s worth checking out the results this week.

For details on the Gallery 345 recital, click here. For the free Hart House concert, click here.

And here is Yoon with Royal Conservatory of Music grad Todd Yaniw (they met as graduate students at Rice University) in a performance of a three-movement Divertimento by Joseph Haydn at the Hornby Festival last spring:

John Terauds

 

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
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