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.