Who or what inspired you to take up violin and pursue a career in music?
My Grandmother was a pianist and my whole family love music so I grew up listening to all types of music since I was a baby. I spent my early childhood years in New Jersey, in an area very close to New York City, and my parents took me along with them to incredible performances at venues such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center even when I was just three years old.
I sat completely still during the concerts and was mesmerised by the music and the action on stage. The first instrument I learned at the age of four was actually the piano, but soon after I wanted to learn the violin since I was inspired by the solo violinists and orchestras members I had seen in concert. I was painfully shy as a child and music always felt like a safe outlet of expression.
Who or what are the most significant influences on your musical life?
I feel very fortunate to have met and worked with several legendary musicians who are some of my greatest inspirations. The late Maestro Lorin Maazel was an important mentor to me and I learned so much from him about musicianship and also navigating the challenging aspects of a musician’s life. Maestro Ashkenazy whom I had the honor and pleasure of recording two albums with and continue to perform concerts with, taught me so much about music making, positive energy and just having fun on stage. Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen has also been a more recent influence in my musical vision. I toured with him last Fall and he introduced me to new realms of sound I didn’t even imagine were possible. In general I am most inspired when I interact directly with people – whether it’s working and discussing ideas with a great conductor, playing chamber music with amazing colleagues, or even having passionate discussions with people from completely different fields.
What, for you, is the most challenging part of being a violinist? And the most fulfilling aspect?
There are several challenges in the realities of being a concert violinist which are never taught or even discussed during the years of music education. One aspect for example, is handling emotions. As a musician you experience a rollercoaster of emotions in quite a short span of time, which on one hand is a privilege but can also be quite tough to cope with. You could be on tour with an orchestra with over a hundred people traveling together for weeks (my last tour consisted of 230 people traveling specifically for the tour), spending intense amounts of time surrounded by amazing people, making friends, enjoying new cities, going on stage almost every night and playing your heart out, going through emotions in the music itself, meeting audiences after concerts etc…. And then when the tour’s over everything vanishes and you’re quite abruptly left all on your own, ultimately feeling quite empty. This is just one example, but when I first started performing and traveling actively, the contrasting emotional highs and lows were something I had to learn how to handle on my own. Topics like this or handling politics, jealousy, discrimination (I once experienced an established male executive literally slam a door in my face for being a young Asian female), are topics I wish could be educated to more young people studying music to help them prepare for the real world.
The most fulfilling aspect is the process of creating something beautiful, original and true to myself.
As a violinist, how do you communicate your ideas about a work to the orchestra?
I think the best form of communication about a work is through music itself, therefore, I try to be as clear as I can in my musical intentions and ideas so that it is easily understandable for the orchestra and conductor. Forming a friendly rapport and sense of trust with the conductor is also very important for me. In my experience, the more secure the conductor and soloist feel together, the more confident the orchestra feels as well. I enjoy a teamwork kind of atmosphere in music making and in life.
Is there one work which you would love to perform?
There are so many fantastic pieces for solo violin and also loads of chamber music that I still want to discover. Our repertoire is so large, the learning is really endless! I’ve recently become fascinated by Esa-Pekka Salonen’s own music, his violin concerto in particular, and I hope to learn it in the future.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in?
There are so many magical venues around the world! So far the Royal Albert Hall has been most impressive to me, I love the Concertgebouw because it feels like a holy sanctuary with all it’s history and beauty, and the Lotte Concert Hall in Seoul has a special place in my heart as I have fond memories of performing there and listening to amazing concerts there.
Who are your favourite musicians/composers?
My favorite composers are Bach and Shostakovich. I can play or listen to anything by either of them for hours.
I admire so many musicians of the present and from the past, it’s hard to name just a few. I particularly appreciate the people who have an undeniably distinct voice, who challenge my views about sound and music, and who make me fall in love with the power of music all over again.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I think the definition of success is different for everyone and my own views of success change over time as well. Currently, I value success as being able to create art that is thoroughly true and unique to myself, sharing it with the world, absorbing all that there is to learn and creating priceless memories along the way.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Finding your musical voice is essential. It’s a very long and often obscure process but discovering and cultivating it is one of the most fulfilling aspects of being a musician. Music isn’t about how many hours you practice in a day or how challenging the piece of music you’re playing is. Every time we pick up our instruments or walk on to a stage, we have the privilege of creating, communicating and sharing. Figuring out what kind of musician you want to be is the first step and then comes the path of constant searching and discovering.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I abandoned the idea of “perfect” anything a long time ago. It’s a tough enough journey to find happiness, let alone “perfect happiness”!
Happiness for me currently means being active by doing what I love, sharing what I love with the world, surrounding myself with diverse people who inspire and challenge me, and being completely comfortable in my own skin.
Esther Yoo performs Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A minor with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Vladimir Ashkenazy on 28 April at London’s Royal Festival Hall, and Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto on 29 April at Bedford Corn Exchange.
Esther Yoo, the first ever Artist-in-Residence with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (2018) is acclaimed for her “dark, aristocratic tone” (Gramophone Magazine) and “balanced grace” (The Herald). Recently listed as one of Classic FM’s Top 30 Artists under 30, Yoo first came to international attention in 2010 when she became the youngest prizewinner of the 10th International Sibelius Violin Competition at aged 16. In 2012 she was one of the youngest ever prizewinners of the Queen Elisabeth Competition, and from 2014 to 2016 she was a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist.
The 2018/19 season sees Esther debut with Los Angeles Philharmonic/Gustavo Dudamel, the Florida Orchestra/Michael Francis and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra/Louis Langree. As a regular collaborator, she will tour with the Philharmonia Orchestra twice in the season – to Korea and China with Esa-Pekka Salonen, and to Spain and the UK with Vladimir Ashkenazy. In Europe, Esther returns to Orchestra National de Belgique and Orchestra National de Lille, and debuts with Oulu Symphony, Orquesta Camera Musicae and Orquestra Sinfonica Portuguesa.
Artist photo: Marco Borggreve