Kristin Lee’s Deep Dive Into Chamber Music

Victoria Looseleaf on July 11, 2019
Kristin Lee | Credit: Lauren Desberg

Born with a passion for music-making, Kristin Lee began playing the violin at age 5 in her native Seoul, snagging first prize at the prestigious Korea Times Violin Competition a year later. Moving to the States in 1995, Lee continued her musical studies, and two years later she was enrolled in The Juilliard School’s Pre-College Division, where she studied with Catherine Cho and Dorothy DeLay. In January 2000, Lee was chosen to study with Itzhak Perlman after he heard her play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Juilliard’s Pre-College Symphony Orchestra.

The young musician went on to earn a master’s degree from Juilliard, where she continued her studies with Perlman and Donald Weilerstein, in addition to having served as an assistant teacher for Perlman’s studio as a Starling Fellow. With an über-active performance schedule, Lee has also, at various times, served on the faculties of Seoul’s LG Chamber Music School, El Sistema’s chamber-music festival in Caracas, Venezuela, and the Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival and Institute, where she will be performing in a number of works on July 27 and 31, and August 3.

Kristin Lee | Credit: Sophie Zhai

Among Lee’s honors are a 2015 Avery Fisher Career Grant and a top prize at the 2012 Walter W. Naumburg Competition. The violinist has been described by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as having a flawless technique and “a sense of melodic shaping that reflects an artistic maturity,” an accolade befitting her appearances as a soloist with leading orchestras that include the Philadelphia Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic. As an accomplished chamber musician, Lee is also a member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, performing at Lincoln Center and on tour with the organization.

Currently making her home in Manhattan, 33-year-old Lee is at the top of her game. I spoke with her by phone from New York, where she had just come from visiting family in Korea and was getting ready to jet off again, this time to perform in Italy.

Is it a rite of passage for musical prodigies to attend Juilliard’s Pre-College Division, which is, of course, something you did?

That’s an interesting question, because a lot of people from my generation have gone through that pre-college program, where Dorothy DeLay was the Goddess of violin pedagogy. She has brought a lot of that attention to violinists and certainly attracted high-quality musicians but was perhaps even more relevant to people in their 40s and 50s. It’s curious about people in their 20s, though, who are learning of her since her passing [in 2002].

You also studied with Itzhak Perlman at Juilliard. What was he like as a teacher and how did he influence you as a musician and in your attitude towards life?

I studied with Miss DeLay until she passed away and was introduced to him two years before her passing. I didn’t see it coming; it fell out of nowhere, really. Obviously, Perlman is an idol for every violinist out there, and I had this idea he would be very intimidating, scary, and very difficult to approach. I think what he has shown me as a human being was probably the greatest lesson I’ve learned throughout the time I studied with him, which was 10 years. He’s most humble, very down to earth, and he also really showed all of his students what to prioritize in life.

Obviously, music, when it becomes our career, could take over, but he taught us to value why we love and pursue music and also to have a balanced life in order to succeed in what we do. To be able to approach music in a way that is not like conquering [something], but that it’s a part of your life. To have a well-rounded mentality is what I’ve learned the most from him. I think it comes off as who he is as a violinist on stage, too. I haven’t studied with him for a while, but I feel all those lessons resonating with me more as I get older.

You’ve been involved with Music@Menlo, the internationally acclaimed chamber music festival that was founded in 2003 by David Finckel and Wu Han, for many years now. Why is that festival particularly appealing to you?

Music@Menlo is probably the most exhausting [festival] but at the same time the most invigorating place to be to replenish my desire for music. I say the word exhausting because I feel like there’s so much information I have to take in. From 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., you’re experiencing lectures, you’re going to coach, then you record and perform and meet with different people. You’re constantly on the go, and are exhausted but you’re stimulated with all this information and musical knowledge you’re gaining and improving and figuring out why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s a place where I have improved as a musician myself.

Also, you’re always approaching music in a sense of like being within a society and a community. You’re not approaching music because you have to be better, but because you’re always told what music is, you’re living in it. You’re not competing or that you have to stand out. It’s creating an environment where you’re in this musical world that you live in and are improving constantly.

Kristin Lee | Credit: Sophie Zhai

I first went there in 2009, as a student and as a participant of an international program. Basically, there were a few summers I didn’t go, but I have been going back and my career with Menlo is significant because after I went as a student, the following year I started going there to teach in the Young Performers program [ages] 9–18 and in the last two years, I’ve been teaching and performing on the main stage. You can call me a Menlo baby, since I’ve experienced Menlo for the last decade.

The word “decade” has been coming up a lot and is also the theme of the festival this summer [“Incredible Decades”], where we’re going to be exploring the entire palate of history for classical music. I’ll be in the later decades — in the post-Romantic era, the post-German era, where we’re going to explore a lot with French sounds and Bohemia, all the way to the truly American sounds — the music of today. I’m sad I’m not going to be able to be there for the earlier parts — experiencing from beginning to the end and understanding the realm of what classical music is all about.

You’ll be playing in the Korngold Piano Quintet in E Major, Op. 15. What are your thoughts about this work and does it seem as if he’s being performed more these days?

I’m very familiar with the Korngold and have worked on it for five or six years. I think it’s a hidden gem and I do feel he’s making a comeback. You would relate to his writing as hyper-Romantic music, and his sound is a replica of what you would have been hearing in the ’20s in Hollywood, but more angsty, with more German in him. Korngold is a name people are hearing more now than, say, 10 years ago, when people didn’t recognize his name. The piano quintet is probably the lesser known of his chamber works, but this piece is significant because what I like to think is at the heart of the piece is based on a song he wrote. It’s like a variation. What an incredible imagination and creativity he had. It’s a somber song and you feel like your heart is going to explode by the end. The more you know about it the more you analyze it.

In fact, if you look at the score, he’s writing directions on every single bar. The first time I had to translate every single thing because he had written so many directions. It’s a piece that if you know nothing, but just encounter it, you would be in tears. It’s very special. The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center released a recording of it in 2014 and I performed on it.

You’ve been collaborating with pianist Jeremy Jordan to promote programs under the header “Americana,” which features the standard, contemporary, and improvisatory music of American music. This stems from your having been born in South Korea and emigrating here as a young child?

Yes, and the first time I came up with this idea was back in 2011 or 2012. I was giving a recital at Strathmore in Maryland, and they asked about putting together an American program and I hadn’t done that before. I wanted to do a good job and I did my research. I was actually shocked at how much American music was out there. That’s where my interest first started. The more I explored, I discovered that American music is significant in that the blues and jazz sounds influenced a lot of the classical writing. And it’s continuing to grow. The music being written today is exploring different sounds and probably has the widest palate and variety of sounds. That triggered my interest and I’m still exploring and finding more music.

Since you’re a millennial and were born with a mobile device in hand, so to speak, I’m wondering how important social media is to your career?

It’s extremely important, and it’s probably the most important source of promotion. It’s work, too. You have to post regularly in order to get recognized by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. By gaining followers you have people who happen to be near you and can come to your concerts. They can see you outside of your life of music. It’s not the easiest to always post, but I do consider it as part of my work.

Another constant in the careers of successful concertizing musicians seems to be their having received the Avery Fisher Career Grant, which you did in 2015. How do you think that influenced the trajectory of your career?

I think it really helped me bring my name and career onto a platform, which was such an honor — it was an amazing thing. It helped me become clear about what I really wanted to pursue. I’ve always been somebody extremely devoted to chamber music because that helps me develop the most as a musician and I’ve been focusing more in that area. A lot of people don’t think that’s the usual route to take, but I’ve been incredibly happy and my goal at the end of the day is to become a well-rounded musician and continue to learn, and chamber music has brought me that kind of career I feel content with. Yes, there are my projects, playing with orchestras and solo concerts, but my heart is with chamber music.

A place like Menlo also helped me realize a lot of these things. Me starting violin at a young age, studying with Dorothy in the pre-college program — that you’re supposed to pursue this career as a soloist, as a prima donna or diva. You feel like you’re supposed to pursue that, but I don’t think I understood why I was doing what I did [only] that I was supposed to be doing that.

Encountering Music@Menlo changed my attitude. My favorite concert was when I was a student in 2009 and saw Menahem Pressler in a recital. He was an old man — he was like in his late 80s — and I’m sure it wasn’t because of his playing only, but it was also the environment, and I realized music is a real passion, a real responsibility, a real duty to continue searching, because it’s our job to honor these composers. For all these composers — a lot of them spent their last days and years focusing on chamber music — and that says a lot about chamber music. Menlo is unique in that way and has helped me realize this is what I want to pursue.