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Piano heroine Chung plans triumphant return

03/06/08
By Anthony Sclafani

Ronald Mutchnik recalls the first time that pianist Eun Joo Chung performed for the Sundays at Three concert series. Immediately after she finished playing Ravel's "La Valse," music-lovers leapt to their feet as one.

"They were just so bowled over by her playing," says the co-founder of the chamber series. On Sunday, March 9, a year after that memorable Sundays at Three debut, the Columbia-based musician will make her second appearance at the series.

Mutchnik says he considers this Eastman School of Music graduate one of the "finest pianists of her generation," and expects a large audience for her triumphant return.

"We were so happy to see such a huge crowd last year," adds Mutchnik, who is also chair of the artistic committee. "We know they'll come back to hear her again. She has quite a following now."

Even a few years back, Chung was virtually unknown by local concert-goers. The native of South Korea had studied with Leon Fleisher and won both the Viotti International Competition and the Schubert International Piano Competition, but she was never keen on "self promoting" explains Mutchnik.

She was discovered locally when one day a Sundays at Three board member heard from a friend about a pianist he heard "playing all the time" who lived in his neighborhood. The pianist turned out to be Chung, who was asked to perform. Her presence at Sundays at Three was a natural, since the series likes to feature accomplished musicians from the Baltimore-Washington region.

And Chung is certainly accomplished. In addition to the aforementioned competitions, she has won the Chopin Kosciuszko Competition and the World Piano Competition. She has performed with esteemed ensembles like the Moscow Radio Symphony, the Dortmund Philharmonic and the Turin Philharmonic. And she has appeared at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center and Musikverein in Vienna.

Chung also studied piano at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and attended Vienna's Hochschule fur Musik und Darstellende Kunst and the Moscow Conservatory of Music.

Even with all those credits, Mutchnik didn't anticipate the rapturous response that Chung's playing would elicit at Sundays at Three. He chalks it up to the way her brilliant technique is balanced by an understated performance style.

"She's very economical with her movements. She tosses things off so modestly but so powerfully that you're kind of riveted that someone who is not showing all these histrionics and obvious theatricality still gets such a dramatic sound.

"It's rare to have somebody who plays in such a modest way to have all of that grandness in their sound."

Mutchnik says that it was specifically Chung's interpretation of the Ravel piece last year that wowed him. The work has "an orchestral quality," he says, and calls it "a big feat" for a pianist to "conjure all the different sounds on one instrument.

"The audience was just immediately won over with it. The fact that she got through it unscathed with no mistakes made it seem easy," says Mutchnik.

For her impending performance, Chung will tackle four works, including Bach-Busoni's "Chaconne in D Minor," Schubert's "Wanderer Fantasy, Op. 15," Brahms' "Paganini Variations, Book I, Op. 35," and Chopin's "Andante Spianato et Grand Polonaise in E-Flat Major."

Mutchnik calls it "a wonderful program" that showcases "all the wonderful things that you expect to hear from the romantic era of piano music."

He singles out the Schubert piece, a four-movement work performed without breaks, as a work to take any pianist's measure. "The piece is quite difficult," he explains. "It's based on a kind of martial-like rhythm at the beginning, and it carries through throughout the piece."

The Brahms work, Mutchnik says, is an adaptation of a Paganini composition meant for solo violin. It's "very virtuosic and difficult" on that instrument, he says, but "even more challenging on piano."

In all, it should be an excellent showcase for Chung, who has fast become an unsung hero on the local music scene.

"She looks very modest and unassuming," Mutchnik ends, "but the sound and the variety in her tone are on a grand scale."

Eun Joo Chung will perform as part of the Sundays at Three concert series Sunday, March 9, 3 p.m., at the Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia (at the intersection of Oakland Mills and Dobbin roads). Tickets are $15 general and $10 for unaccompanied full-time students. Anyone younger than age 18 will be admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Call 410-992-0145 or go to www.SundaysAtThree.org.

BACK

Renowned pianist next door

By Sarah Hoover
Special to the Sun
March 7, 2008

When internationally acclaimed pianist Eun Joo Chung steps onstage at 3 p.m. Sunday at Christ Episcopal Church in Columbia to perform a program of devilishly difficult music, she might not strike you as the girl next door. But she is; Chung has been a resident of Howard County for six years.

"It's different here than in Vienna," she says, where she had studied in Austria at the Hochschule für Musik and performed at the Musikverein. "There everyone was a musician. Music was so much a part of everyday life."

In Columbia, her neighbors are teachers, doctors and military personnel - and lots of young children.

"I see little kids walking by in groups on their way home from school. My window is open and they can hear me practice, and they ask, 'What is she doing?' I hope that some of them will hear the music that I play some day, and that they will learn about classical music."

Music shaped Chung's childhood; starting at age 4 she had a piano lesson every day in her hometown of Seoul, South Korea. When she entered a British school in Hong Kong speaking almost no English, music became "the language and the little world of my own," she says.

Faced with a difficult adjustment to a new culture, Chung intensified her commitment to playing the piano, "the thing I could do better than anyone."

Her discipline and perseverance paid off when, at age 16, she won admittance to the Eastman School of Music. From there, she was invited to study in Vienna and afterward in Moscow. Winning competitions and performing throughout Europe, she has enjoyed success as a recitalist, soloist with orchestras and chamber musician.

After a family illness drew her back to the United States, she made a new career for herself, completing a master's degree at Peabody Conservatory with renowned pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher and making her Carnegie Hall debut in 2004.

Chung's Sunday program is a technical and musical tour-de-force, including the Bach/Busoni Chaconne, Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, Brahms' Paganini Variations Book I and Chopin's Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise in E flat major.

With the exception of the Chopin, the music on the program is based on variation; a short musical phrase is repeated and developed, becoming more intricate and complex as the work progresses. This musical form offers the opportunity to display technical prowess and artistic subtlety.

Bach's Ciaccona is a series of variations originally written for solo violin that were transcribed for piano by Ferrucio Busoni, a virtuoso pianist of the late 19th century. Busoni was a flamboyant performer and a lover of Bach's intricate compositional style, both of which can be heard in his transcription.

Schubert's Fantaisie in C major, better known as the Wanderer Fantasy, is based on a fragment of one of his songs ("Der Wanderer") that serves as the basis for the rest of the work's four sections. Composed in 1822, the Wanderer Fantasy is one of Schubert's most virtuosic works. An accomplished pianist himself, he ruefully concluded that "the devil may play it!"

Pianist Clara Schumann, close friend of Brahms, had much the same reaction to his Variations on a Theme of Paganini of 1862, calling them "witch variations" and impossible to play.

Each book contains an opening theme followed by 14 variations, short but extremely demanding. The theme is derived from a caprice written by violin virtuoso Nicolo Paganini whose style Brahms emulates in his variations.

Chopin paired the serenely rippling Andante spianato with its extroverted and rousing opposite, the Grande Polonaise Brillante in E flat major, which was originally written for piano and orchestra..

While Sunday's program certainly requires virtuosity, Chung hopes that the audience will take away something more. "If the performer is able to invite me into the music, I feel that it is a very intimate conversation taking place as opposed to a show or a display," she says.

It is in moments of connection between audience and performer like these, Chung says, that she realizes that music is "a necessity rather than an enhancement in life, and that it is one of the finest things life has to offer."

"I find that enjoyment doesn't come from the easy, fast things in our culture" like the Internet, TV, microwave food or from "pianos that play themselves," she adds. "Real happiness comes from having worked hard for something."

And perhaps some of her young neighbors will hear her play the extraordinary music that is the result of her efforts.

"Maybe I will have planted a seed," she muses.

Eun Joo Chung will appear at Christ Episcopal Church, 6800 Oakland Mills Road in Columbia. Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for unaccompanied full-time students and free for those under 18 accompanied by a paying adult. Information: www.sundaysatthree.org.

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