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Making History With Bach

Kyung Wha Chung

 (Photo by Simon Fowler)

Author

It's noteworthy for any violinist to play the complete six Bach Sonatas and Partitas in concert. Ambitious players do it in two parts; the most daring in back-to-back concerts. Yet for the last year, violin faculty member Kyung Wha Chung (Diploma '69, violin) has been playing the six in one concert in top-drawer concert halls in Asia and England, with a recording along the way. This series of 20 concerts in a year culminate in a May 18 performance at Carnegie Hall. What makes this feat even more impressive is the fact that while Chung had entranced audiences for decades, a finger injury in 2005 forced her take an extended leave of absence from
the stage.

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Chung's journey with this repertoire began long before these recent concerts, of course. She started working on the E-Major Partita in 1961, when she arrived at age 13 from Korea to study with the legendary Ivan Galamian (faculty 1946–80) at Juilliard. She went on to study and perform all six, which “was a foundation that gave me the courage to take the C-Major Sonata Adagio and Fugue” to the prestigious Leventritt Competition, which she and Pinchas Zukerman won 50 years ago this month. “Delivering this enigmatic repertoire with its polyphony and genius is a lifelong endeavor,” she told assistant violin faculty member Ray Iwazumi; here are some excerpts from their conversation about Chung's journey.

When you've been doing this project, have you ever wanted to change something between concerts?

Concerts are never the same, and the same repertoire is never the same, because otherwise, it becomes very stale. The first time I played the six in public in a big hall was last May in Beijing, and I was thinking “in what order?” For those four concerts in Asia, I didn't do all six at once, I did it in sets of two. When I tried it in order—G Minor, B Minor, A Minor, D Minor, C Major, E Major, with intermissions after the B Minor and the D Minor—this visual aspect presented itself to me that this is a triptych—the Trinity—like in Baroque visual art. The center panel is the A-Minor Sonata and the D-Minor Partita with the Ciaconna.

Coming back from your injury, did you do anything special to prepare for this monumental task, like exercise or meditation?

No, absolutely not. If you have to do that now, in your late 60s, forget it! The biggest factor for my preparation for Bach came when I left the stage because I had injured my index finger. Did I despair? No. I asked myself what my calling was, as I believe in God and my faith. And so I decided to give back, and I came to Juilliard as a professor. But during those five years, I had to teach without my violin, which was one of the biggest shocks of my life. I had to go to the keyboard. And at night I would close my eyes and try to go through the fugues—the G Minor, A Minor, and C Major—in my mind. In the beginning I got stuck after the first bar, because to flow and imagine everything, physically, mentally, for all the lines, takes training. And five years later, gratefully, my finger did recover and I went back to the stage.

And that was all mental?

Totally mental. For the violinist, the violin can be a crutch. [As a student] I was told to “use my head,” but I was emotion first—I was a passionate player. I was gifted technically. I learned quickly, and I could memorize things in just a few playings, so I got lazy. But then I had this God-given time of five years, and that was the basis of this [study of Bach]. So when I came back in 2010, I thought, right—but I couldn't practice. To this day, I can't practice, so all my [preparatory] work is done in my head, because I realized if I overplay during the day, I can't perform, I'm too tired.

Do you pace yourself differently now?

When I was 13 and in school at Juilliard and at Meadowmount [in the summer], the time I devoted to practicing averaged 11 to 14 hours a day. I was completely crazy about bringing pieces to life, and there were chamber music rehearsals and so on. And when I got to sleep at midnight, I thought, “Wow, that was a wonderful day.” I would focus on bringing the essence of the sound, character, color, and so on, and then the technical side, with matters of execution, like shifts, which are a major physical obstacle. I would play a passage a hundred times just to get it. And at the end, I would play passages 10 times, as if I were performing, to listen to see it if it had that character. So all this through my 20s, 30s, 40s—you have to adapt to what your body is able to do, because your mind advances—or maybe regresses! One thing that gets better—the magic of growing old—is the freedom of knowing what it is you don't want and that you can discard it. And so [your playing] becomes purer.

I came to the West in 1961 with one singular desire: to express my passion and bring it out with this instrument—the power of magic in the sound thrilled me. I was so lucky to be under Mr. Galamian, who gave me total freedom of expression with very strong fundamental technique. And when I came back to performing after this injury, I reconnected to that backbone of my training. It's also why I'm dedicating the concert to Mr. Galamian.

You're playing a new violin?

I made the recording last June with a del Gesù, the “Rode” (1734). And before that I used the “ex-Kubelik” del Gesù (1735) and recorded quite a lot of with it. But I was looking for a smaller violin as I was aging. [The luthier] René Morel always said, “I think you'll be much happier if you get a Strad,” but I didn't like Strads, I was crazy about Guarneris. After I finished my recording, I had two surgeries for my fingers in September, not long after I met this 1702 “King Joseph Maximillian” Strad, which is one of the smallest violins Stradivarius made. It was brought to me two weeks after my surgery, and I had this incredible desire to play it, which probably got me back much quicker. What's amazing is that after this operation I can hold the D-Minor Ciaconna chord without worrying about missing it with this Strad, whereas with the Guarneri—that's why I strained [my ring finger].

So you've been playing on it just half a year. Do you switch violins easily?

Absolutely not! Of course, other people think I do. For me, to get to know a great instrument, it takes comfortably three years. But I didn't have three years to spare so I did it in three months!

Carnegie Hall Archives believes it's the first time the six Sonatas and Partitas will have been played at once there—this will be historic!

[Young musicians today have] this amazing output and play incredibly. My only wish is for them to know that the deepest part of their sound, their soul, their character cannot be easily delivered. It is a lifetime struggle, even with one piece. I still have vivid memories of my struggle with the G-Minor Sonata, 55 years ago. I wanted to kill myself a gazillion times because of the frustration. Bach takes long suffering, patience, and utmost humility. And with the utmost humble attitude, I would like to give my voice to these works.

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