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A citizen of South Korea, Inmo was born in Indonesia to a Korean family in 1995. He began playing the violin at a young age and made his recital debut in the Ewon Prodigy Series in Seoul at the age of eleven, and at fifteen made his concerto debut with the most prestigious symphony orchestra in South Korea, the KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) Orchestra. He has won many awards for his playing, like the Concert Artists Guild competition in 2014, which gave him the honor of giving his first Carnegie Hall recital in the famous Weill Recital Hall, but it was the competition he entered in March of 2015 that made people sit-up and pay attention, which was the 54th International Violin Competition “Premio Paganini” in Genoa, Italy.

 

At the height of the Romantic era, the phenomenon of the virtuoso performer became the rage in European concert halls. This was best represented by the pianist/composer Franz Liszt­ — in fact, it was Liszt who really began the rage. His piano recitals were sold out, and he is still thought of as the greatest pianist of all time; if you will, the 19th Century version of the GOAT (Greatest of All Time). But what Liszt was to the piano, Niccolo Paganini was to the violin. Paganini made sounds on the violin that people had never heard or thought possible. He was only 5’ 5” in height, but he cut an ominous figure on stage, with long swept back hair (like Liszt) and possessing the longest fingers anyone had ever seen. People felt he was the devil incarnate the way he looked and played. For sure violinists of his day thought so when they tried to play his compositions, for like Liszt who composed many works for the piano, Paganini did also for the violin. His Op.1, 24 Caprices for Solo Violin, were technically the most imaginative pieces yet composed for the instrument and greatly expanded the timbre of the violin. The only problem at the time was that violinists found them impossible to play — in fact, the only one who could play them was the composer.

 

This was the challenge Inmo took on in 2015, which he competed in and won the first prize Gold Medal. The more impressive aspect of that victory was that the first place Gold Medal had not been awarded for nine years. He was twenty years old at the time and the music world took notice. Back in Korea, Inmo became the Kumho Art Hall Artist in Residence for the 2018 season. As part of that residency, Inmo gave a performance of Paganini’s Caprices which were recorded live on the Deutsche Grammophone label in 2018 — Inmo’s first recording. Lucky for us, Inmo then came to the New England Conservatory of Music as the only violinist in the highly selected Artist Diploma Program. It was there that Mark Churchill approached Inmo to see if he would like to play the Elgar Violin Concerto with us, of which Inmo was interested in doing, as he had been looking for an opportunity to do his first run on the piece. However, as luck would have it, Inmo decided to enter the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, and given it was six weeks before the competition, he would not have time enough to prepare the Elgar. It was then that Mark suggested he play the Tchaikovsky with us instead, and Inmo thought that was a great idea. The rest, as they say, at least for the family of Symphony Pro Musica, is history.

 

I remember very well the night Inmo played with us and hearing the first notes of the Tchaikovsky for the solo violin. Later, I tried to think of an analogy to what those first notes represented, and all I could come up with was a possible hot night in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1948, when fans came early to watch the batting practice of the Black Barons, a minor league baseball team in the Negro American League, and they heard for the first time a new, distinctive crack of the bat. As heads turned, someone asked, “who is that guy in the batting cage,” and another answered, “some new kid named Willie Mays.” That is a strange analogy, I know, but apt. Visually, there are no histrionics or physical displays when Inmo performs. Such manifestations are not needed, for if you close your eyes, they are all in his notes. His phrasing and dynamics can be both visceral and subtle at the same time. He was, that night, in total control of the musical line and conversation. I may have heard the Tchaikovsky 12 to 15 times live in my life, and maybe another 20 times on recordings by various artists, but that night in Hudson, I felt I was hearing it for the first time.

 

Although Inmo was felt by many to be the odds-on favorite to win in Moscow, he did not go. Unfortunately for the music world, Inmo had obligations back in Korea. Everyone in Korea has obligations to fulfil to the state, and for a young male like Inmo, that obligation is to the military. It is what happens when a country is split in two and no peace treaty has ever been signed on a conflict that happened over seventy-years ago. Too bad. It would have been a most memorable Tchaikovsky competition.

 

I am compelled to put in a little sidenote: In his fourth performance with SPM, George Li played the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto (for the first time) in preparation for the Moscow competition, and then went on to win the Silver Medal in Moscow — probably because of politics, with a Russian needing to take the Gold. Zlatomir Fung played with us three times, and then went on to win the Tchaikovsky Gold Medal in cello. Finally, after playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with us, Inmo Yang would probably have taken the Gold in violin. So, the world should take notice: the road to the International Tchaikovsky Competition now, seemingly, goes through Symphony Pro Musica!

 

Inmo would play with us again in the Fall of 2019, when he played the Brahms Violin Concerto. Of note in that concert, Inmo used the same Stradivarius violin used by the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim when he premiered the concerto in 1878, with Brahms himself conducting. It is too bad the 'Strad' cannot speak, to tell us which performer it favored. I would be surprised if it chose Joachim.

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Besides causing massive sickness and death, the pandemic, which has now lasted nearly a year and a half, has put life on hold for so many, especially so for performance artists. I feel bad for the many artists, and people working in the arts, whose sole income was from the performance arts, and what they have had to piece together just to afford basic living expenses. For young artists like our three mentioned here, who were just beginning their careers, everything came to an abrupt halt. But that is not always a bad thing. The beginnings of careers by such talented artists like a George, Zlatomir, or Inmo can be a whirlwind, with little time to stop, think, or reflect on what they are doing, or where they are going. It sounds strange to say, but there are sometimes benefits to such things.

George Li’s time off over the past year has been one of welcome family time and exploring new repertoire. From that first performance playing the Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1, George Li performed three other times with us, the last time appearing on the same program with his brother Andrew, who is also a very accomplished pianist — we had in fact adopted the entire family. He finished his degree at Harvard, with a dual diploma from the New England Conservatory, and was performing around the world, appearing with symphony orchestras, and giving recitals when everything came to an abrupt halt. In a recent email to me, he stated, “Basically, most of my time [since] has been spent at home with family, keeping safe and learning new repertoire. In a way, the pandemic although brutal in most ways has been a great way for me to self-reflect and spend quality time at home with music and to learn new repertoire, time that has been hard to come by in recent years due to the constant traveling and concertizing.” Since March, he has been doing many virtual performances, a recent one from the Gardiner Performance Hall, and his first Artist Diploma recital at NEC just last week. It is his hope that by the end of the Summer into the Fall, he will be performing live again, which is good because of the many friends who were not classical music fans that I brought to his concerts and I told them you will be able to say in the future, ‘I knew him when’ — although I really do feel that if he had given me a chance, I could have turned him into a very efficient left-handed reliever!

For cellist Zlatomir Fung, the time off has been a time for intense practice. Not just on the usual exercises and pieces cellists play, but some of the toughest pieces found in the repertoire, that many cellists never play. One such piece he learned was not written for the cello, but for the violin, the 50 Variations for Violin, on a Theme of Corelli, by Tartini (original title: The Art of Bowing). If there are violinists out there right now, a few may be having hairs standing up on the back of their necks reading this, for the piece in question is considered one of the toughest to play. This difficult piece was transcribed for the cello by Paul Bazelaire, and Zlatomir was determined to learn its complicated bowings, trills, and exhausting vibratos. While learning to play it, Zlatomir streamed out to the world his practice sessions on Instagram, and later played it live for the Worcester Music Association. I shudder to think what another pandemic would do for his playing!

The pandemic for Inmo Yang has been a time to reflect, which he voiced to the Korea Herald in an interview: “Everything has changed since the pandemic. It was a time to question myself. The big question was, ‘For whom do I play?’” “Hearing,” he continued, “was linked to survival, but not anymore. We now use hearing for higher-level activities. There will come a time when we will be tired of seeing and turn to hearing and classical music would mean much more.” This introspection led to an idea for a second recording, which came out in March of this year, again on Deutsche Grammophone, titled The Genetics of Strings.

The album consists of eleven tracks and spans a wide range of works. “Strings are something so close to me, the wire marks on my hand prove it,” stated Inmo. “For the album, [Inmo] went back in time, using gut strings with fine metal wrappings to replicate the lower pitched sounds of older violins for works from before the 19th century,” so stated the Herald article. “The history of strings is the history of increasing tension,” stated Inmo, “I was curious about the strings, the strings became tighter and tighter over the years and that changed everything.” You can hear Inmo’s recreated sound on the tracks of the music of the 11th Century’s Hildegard von Bingen, which almost sounds like music from another world, or the 17th Century’s baroque composers Nicola Matteis and Arcangelo Corelli. But it is the wide range of styles and music which are impressive, like the late 19th Century’s Maurice Ravel, up through almost today with the Argentine tango composer Astor Piazzolla, or the Russian Rodion Shchedrin, which give you the depth of technique, control, and intelligence of this young violinist. (Here is a link to Shchedrin’s Gypsy Melody from Inmo’s recording.) Through it all, however, you hear that unique sound I heard that night in the Hudson High Auditorium, or later at St. Mark’s in Southborough — Inmo’s sound.

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This pandemic must come to an end. It is one thing to watch streaming concerts on tv, or to read and listen to opera scores at home, but if you are like me, “We need to hear live music!” It is Mark Churchill and the orchestra’s fervent hope that need will become reality in the Fall and are already underway with planning it as I write. So, with fingers crossed, live music will again be heard in the Assabet Valley, and a family reunion of sorts will again occur between orchestra and audience, plus two of our prodigal sons, Zlatomir and Inmo, who have agreed to play with us this next season, and in whom we are well pleased!

Musical Musings During a Pandemic (cont.)

—Dan Sweeney