Kyung Wha Chung: the legend returns

At the height of her career, violinist Kyung Wha Chung was struck down with a life-changing hand injury. She tells Maria Roberts about her long- awaited return, and the growing wealth of talent in her home country of South Korea

When Kyung Wha Chung returned to Royal Festival Hall last week – her first appearance in London in 12 years – it was a fractious affair for the 66-year-old Korean musical legend. Reviewers were mildly (un)impressed by her playing (two stars in The Times, three in The Telegraph and The Guardian), and wholeheartedly irritated when she berated a four-year-old child for coughing during her recital.

What a shame for Chung, who still vividly – and very fondly – remembers her debut on the same London stage in 1970. Both appeareances, one for its star quality, and the latter for its contentiousness, could prove to be life-changing experiences for the violinist. Her career started in London – might it just have ended there too?

The furore is unsurprising because Chung is a rather spiky character. Throughout our 8.30am interview her aloof nature and unforgiving tone of voice make for some tough conversation. An attitude that’s not at all likeable. But then 15 minutes in, the tempo changes, she warms up and I get the sense she’s not so much rude, but simply enjoys playing cat and mouse with her bait (me). Fortunately, I’m a big girl and can stick up for myself – unlike the child at RFH.

She shouldn’t take the backlash personally; the English love to hold a grudge and there’s nothing we do better than shooting a comeback tour down (Take That excluded). As a country we complained incessantly about hosting the Olympics, until we changed our minds. British tennis stars are taunted until they win a tournament, and when footballer Gareth Southgate missed a penalty at the England v Germany, Euro 1996 game, he may as well have been publicly pelted with rotten vegetables at the stalls. We built our famous NHS on the backs of immigrant workers – and now we disrespect them. And as the globalised world becomes ever more meaningful, political parties are calling for us to turn our backs on Europe and go it alone.

So a South Korean violinist showing her irritation at a child was never going to go down well with the British public – no matter how big a star she once was. Which is disappointing because Chung has done a lot for children’s causes during her musical absence. It’s a tragic fall from grace: in her early-20s, Chung rapidly established herself as the darling of the classical music world. Beautiful, talented, passionate and steely, her rise following that famous London debut was meteoric. But when a hand injury in 2005 forced the virtuoso to cancel a concert in Seoul, with the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra and Valery Gergiev, a hiatus began that lasted for almost a decade. For a lesser character this might have led to despair, but for the cold as ice violinist [then in her mid-50s], it was an opportunity to reconfigure her life. No wonder she was tetchy when faced with a noisy audience.

‘Coming back after an injury has been an amazing experience, particularly because I thought I had to retire,’ she says. ‘Following a concert I suffered minor discomfort and the doctor gave me a cortisone injection – unfortunately he administered too much and it was an overdose. I continued with my tour and practising and so on as normal, but what I hadn’t realised at that time was that the episode had weakened my joints. My index figure was damaged and so two months later, after labouring under quite a heavy schedule, my finger simply couldn’t take the pressure. It took me a good five years of rehab to get back on track.’

Kyung Wha Chung in the BBC Studios, London 1970
Kyung Wha Chung in the BBC Studios, London 1970

Her relentless work ethic comes naturally: as a child she studied piano before moving on to the violin when she was just six years old and by her 10th birthday she had made her debut playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. A lack of opportunities in South Korea for classical musicians meant that aged 13, along with her family (her younger brother Myung Whun Chung is a conductor and pianist, while her older sisters Myung Wha Chung and the late Myung-Soh Chung are a cellist and flautist respectively – their mother was encouraging of their talents to say the least) she headed off to New York to study at the Juilliard School (where she now teaches) with Ivan Galamian.

Then, aged 19, she won joint first prize at the Edgar Leventritt Competition with Pinchas Zukerman. Three years’ later in 1970, when Itzhak Perlman cancelled his performance with the London Symphony Orchestra (as his wife was giving birth), she stepped in to deliver an astounding performance that would launch her professional career.

Immediately, a string of illustrious engagements followed, including recitals with Chicago Symphony Orchestra and New York Philharmonic. An exclusive recording contract with Decca / London began with a debut album with André Previn and London Symphony Orchestra, of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos, which led to bookings with Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and collaborations with Georg Solti, André Previn, Simon Rattle, Claudio Abbado, Charles Dutoit, Daniel Barenboim, Riccardo Muti, Radu Lupu, Krystian Zimerman, Peter Frankl and Stephen Kovacevich.

Her 1970 debut performance in England was remarkable: Chung cemented herself in history as the first professional Korean violinist working at an international level, and she became the first female violinist to establish a professional music career. Ever the pragmatist, she says that at the time she was aware of her exotic allure, but that the political significance of her achievements washed over her.

‘As far as my career was concerned, it was tremendously exciting and interesting, but I only saw it from the point of view of the difficulties at that time in history and what was happening in my life. I wasn’t so concerned that it was a pioneering event, though I was very aware of the excitement surrounding my performances. When I won an international competition, it was a national celebration.’

To find herself unable to play after 30 years of success must have been devastating? ‘Retiring from the public stage brought on a period of great introspection,’ she agrees. ‘I had to reevaluate my life completely: my values did not marry up with my own capabilities. But I just took it as a calling, I had been blessed and now it was time to give back.’

Over the past decade she has put her money where her mouth is by supporting children both in her home country of South Korea and in Africa. ‘It started with charity work for my mother’s church, then I went to Rwanda with Save the Children in 1997 and have returned every year since. This year, I went with World Vision to meet the three children who I have supported for 18 years for the first time. I feel I’ve gained far more than I’ve lost’.

‘Now I serve as a mentor to others by coaching and counselling young musicians,’ she notes, keen to point out that this is not the same as teaching. ‘They can ask me anything about their lives, often things they couldn’t even talk to their own parents about. It’s wonderful to offer them guidance as they take the big leap into the world and society.’

In her opinion, the landscape for musicians in South Korea is more competitive than when she was starting out: ‘Young kids are now expected to get a doctorate and have so much education to hand. In this sense the performing arts have become too academic; training is not helpful for a professional concert artist. In my days as a young violinist, I wasn’t pursuing a career, I was simply playing the violin because I loved it from the very moment I came into contact with the instrument at seven years old – and then it became my life. But it is very different now, because there are so many competitions and so many young players trying to establish a career.’

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She thinks the new wealth of talent in South Korea is the result of musicians going abroad to study, and then returning home to a welcoming public ready to support their work. ‘I have received so much love from the people of my homeland. Now is the time to repay their love. I teach chamber music at Ewha Womans University and I realised that Korea lacks a support system to keep educating young talent. I’m trying to establish a fundraising culture there. Last year, I raised 230m won (€169k) through unaccompanied Bach recitals and other performances. And then I suggested we go for 2bn won. What I’m trying to influence here is more consistent support from the private sector, both from business people and also companies that give donations to the arts once in a while. Support in this area is steadily growing, and that’s rather exciting.’

Her activities have been honoured with the Medal of Civil Merit from the South Korean government, and the Ho Am Prize for the arts in 2011. At the annual summer Great Mountains Music Festival in Korea, where she holds the post of artistic director, she hosts a school for violinists all ages, here high-profile ‘gifted children’ and ‘future artists’ concerts sit alongside big names on the bill.

‘It’s a place where the kids starting an international career can come, or those moving into chamber music, as well as the older generation who participate and make music with everyone,’ she says. Chung has high expectations of herself, and not just her audience. Over the course of the last year, she has given 17 recitals in Asia, Japan, Korea and China. ‘To start with I had to train relentlessly, and it was a tremendous struggle. Thankfully, I had tremendous support, so I was very lucky,’ she says. ‘For me, it still feels basically like a miracle to make music and to be able to perform on stage once again.’ As for the current witchhunt, the flames will die down soon enough.