Was that a look of surprise on 20 year-old violinist In Mo Yang’s face as he looked around Preston Bradley Hall at the standing ovation crowd?
Did he not know that his performance along with pianist Renana Gutman was astounding? Every note had seemed inspired. In Schumann’s “Violin Sonata No. 3 in A minor” Yang had conveyed a depth of feeling for the score that made you hungry for more, more, more from his bow. Stunning!
Also, knowing that Yang had won the First Prize in the Paganini Competition—not awarded since 2006-- along with three other Paganini accolades, one might think that despite his youth, a standing ovation is a bit old hat for Yang already.
And yet he looked out at us as if seeing something new. Perhaps it was because this was his debut performance of the Schumann piece and one he had put a great deal of thought into.
In a pre-performance conversation Yang had shared many insights on the music that seemed beyond his years, perhaps as a harbinger of his nuanced performance that one might otherwise think takes decades to nurture. Yang said , “This is a very underrated piece and an underplayed one. I discovered it two months ago. People often play Schumann’s 1st and 2nd Sonatas, but not usually this third one. I don’t know the reason.
“At first this was called the FAE sonata. It means free but lonely, which was the motto of Joseph Joachim to whom this was given as a gift. Originally the first movement was by Dietrich, the third movement by Brahms, and the second and last movements by Schumann. When Schumann made it into this sonata he replaced the Brahms and Dietrich movements with his own, keeping it unified by the FAE motif.
“In the first version with Dietrich and Brahms the intermezzo is the second movement of the FAE. This intermezzo can be played in either the second or third movement because nobody really knows how he imagined it. I play the intermezzo before the last movement, even though many others play it as the second because it is replacing the original second movement of the FAE, but I think the flow of this sonata works better if we switch the order.
“…I started working on this Schumann piece last month but I’ve been deeply engaged with Schumann’s music for a while. This year I had played his 3rd Quartet and it was the first time I got fascinated with how he expresses music. It is actually quite awkward and not well written in terms of violin technique. Even though he wasn’t a violinist there is so much magic and poetic subtle expression. I became interested in what he thought and his life and began reading his biography. That’s when I decided to play one of his sonatas…I find more insecurity but honesty in this third sonata. I love the other sonatas too, but I wanted to challenge myself and because this piece isn’t played so often I can approach it with a fresh ear.
“..The way Schumann writes is unpredictable and opens more possibilities for interpretation…It’s more like an instinct--- beautiful but awkward.”
It’s difficult to imagine that anyone other than Yang was thinking “awkward” as he performed. That Yang is a born musician through and through would be a more likely common thought in the audience.
How did he begin?
It started with a pretty face! Yang explains, “I’m Korean but actually was born in Indonesia where my father was working at the time. My parents are non-musicians but they love classical music. They wanted me to have a good musical education and so when I was five my mother and I went to an instrument shop. We picked the violin accidentally, there was nothing pre-planned about it.
“I had a tutor. She was a college student and I really enjoyed studying with her mainly because she was so pretty. Even though I was only five years old I wanted to be good at what I was doing to impress her. I studied with her for a few years until I was seven. It was never anything very serious. I just enjoyed it, especially with such a pretty teacher.
“Then my Dad’s business required that we move to Shanghai and I then went to a Chinese International School where I had a Chinese violin teacher and played in an orchestra, which I really enjoyed. My teacher was very friendly and we would watch videos of performances together. It was a great invitation to get more involved in music.
“When we returned to Korea I attended a Korean pre-college program for young musicians. ..That’s when I first felt that this was getting serious.
I improved quite quickly and I was very interested in music theory…My teacher was rather strict so I had to work hard to satisfy her expectations. I practiced more then than I do now. I studied with her for three years and also had a little teacher (tutor) who helped me with fingerings and bowings. I had to spend a lot of time doing scales, which was good because it helped develop sensitivity in my left hand, something that’s easier to develop when you are young…
“By the time of my first recital I knew that violin was the center of my life…”
Like Oliver Aldort who performed a few weeks before, The Dame Myra Hess Concert was a detour from intensive chamber music studies at the Steans Institute. The Paganini Competition prizes have opened many a door for Yang, who wants to perform as much as he can but also wants to find time to get his doctorate.
More current pre-occupations include soccer, which he notes has been in his life as long as the violin, and also learning how to cook, which ever-hungry-for-Korean-food Yang describes as a much needed survival skill.
Ultimately Yang knows his heart is in Korea, where he hopes to someday live again and be able to see his parents every day. If you go to Carnegie Hall to hear him perform next Spring look for his parents in the audience, as he will be doing.
One can be amazed by the parade of musical prodigies like Yang at the weekly Dame Myra Hess concert every Wednesday at 12: 15 PM in Preston Bradley Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 East Washington Street, Chicago.
Photos courtesy of In Mo Yang, unless otherwise indicated.