Kyung Wha Chung (born 1948) led the way for Korean musicians to excel in the western world. Arriving as a child to study in New York City, Chung made the study of the violin her life's work.
On March 26, 1948, Kyung Wha Chung was born in Seoul, Korea, to Won Sook Lee and Chun Chai. She grew up in a family with eight siblings, all of whom had early training in music. They all began with piano lessons. "Both my parents were music lovers," stated Chung on the Asia Week website. "Music was part of our education, and there was always music-making at home." A friend of her father gave her a violin to play at the young age of six. She immediately found she could express herself with the instrument. "The violin," she noted in Asia Week, "is very close to the human voice." Soon she was playing in a trio with her sister Myung Wha, who was getting proficient on cello, and brother Myung Whun, who stuck with the piano.
Her older sister, Myung So, was very skilled on the flute and went to America to study at Juilliard in New York City. In 1961, Chung followed and shared an apartment with her sister. Chung also began studying at Juilliard with the well-known Ivan Galamian. Living in New York City, struggling to learn a new language and to live away from home and family in Korea, was difficult. "To put it mildly, I started a whole new life," Chung told the Shanghai Star. "From that time on, my commitment to music was the beacon that showed the way for me." Galamian was extremely firm with her about understanding that she would have a career as a concert violinist and would not have time to have a family. He said that it was unacceptable for a woman to have both. "Mr. Galamian loved me deeply," said Chung, according to the January/February 1999 issue of the American Record Guide, "but that did not change how he felt about female students. He had already been let down by a number of girl prodigies who abandoned their professional goals in their teens, or who had run off and got married." At each lesson, he would remind her that she was not to get married and have children. She would always respond that it was her intention to become a concert violinist. Later, she would tell Asia Week, "I was shocked by the high standard of the music there, and my only goal was to reach that high level."
In 1967, at age 19, she gained a great deal of attention when she won the 25th international Leventritt Competition at Carnegie Hall in New York City, sharing first prize with Pinchas Zukerman. This brought her engagements throughout the United States and Europe. This further led to an opportunity that served as a springboard to her career. She got her London debut by replacing Itzhak Perlman in the Tchaikovsky Concerto with André Previn and the London Symphony. "Sometimes one person's mischance becomes another person's chance," Chung is quoted as stating on the Amazon.com website. "After winning the Leventritt, I began to perform in America and Europe. But it was the London debut that really launched my international career. It was very successful, though at first everything seemed to be against me: I had stepped in at the last moment, and there was so much confusion that I hardly had any rehearsal, but as a result the musicians were all the more concentrated at the performance. The communication with the audience was very strong, so the event was a wonderful experience. The concert was a benefit and not supposed to be reviewed, but the critic with the Financial Times wrote one of the best reviews I have ever received in my life. It was really quite embarrassing—he simply said I was better than everybody else, mentioning a lot of names. I just ignored it, but it was a gold mine for the managers, and I got engagements all over Europe. I always feel very strange when I have to cancel a concert, but then I think, Maybe this will give a young artist the chance of a lifetime." She further stated, "For a young player, replacing another artist can be the first stepping stone to a career. I got my London debut by replacing Perlman in the Tchaikovsky Concerto with André Previn and the London Symphony. Shortly afterward, Renata Tebaldi canceled a recording session and London Records asked me to record the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius concertos instead. My recording career started when they offered me an exclusive contract. And I got my German debut because Lorin Maazel engaged me for his Berlin Festival when Boris Christoff pulled out."
Her success was so great that she was immediately booked for three more London concerts, a tour of Japan, and a television appearance. Engagements with the London Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and Cleveland Orchestra followed, firmly establishing her international career. Chung quickly gained recognition throughout the world as a high caliber performer. She was appearing with all of the major orchestras and conductors throughout North America, Europe, and the Far East. Asia Week contends that she was a leader in showing that Asians could master the western classical tradition, quoting Kyung Soo Won, the conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra as saying, "Until she became a world-class violinist, it was only remotely possible for a Korean to achieve that kind of success. It was like a dream in the clouds. But she showed it was possible." In 1972, the South Korean government awarded her with their highest honor by presenting her with the Medal of Civil Merit. Kyung Soo Won stated in Asia Week that she has a skill and style all her own by saying, "Her tone and technique are unique. These days, young musicians all play the same, but she is markedly different from all the others."
In 1981, her long-time instructor, Galamian, to whom she had consistently promised that she would never marry, passed away. A few years later, in 1984, when she was 35, Chung broke her promise and got married to a British businessman. When her first son, Frederick, was born, she worked hard to keep at least part of her promise to Galamian, by being determined to not let motherhood affect her work, maintaining the same schedule and taking young Frederick along with her in a basket everywhere. However, when her second son, Eugene, was born, she found that Galamian had been right and that she could no longer keep up. She cut back on her performance schedule, reducing it from 120 performances each season down to 60. "For me, because motherhood came rather late, it was the most incredible experience to have my children, so they became my first priority, and I wanted to be with them," Chung stated. "As far as music and performing are concerned, I tried to narrow it down to a certain kind of continuous project—recording—so I did concerts that were related to preparing for the recordings," she told American Record Guide in the January/February 1999 edition.
In 1988, she signed a contract to record exclusively with EMI Classics. "Recordings are so personal for me," she said to the Rocky Mountain News. "Nothing is ever permanent in an interpretation—but that's not the case with a record. You have to leave something of your soul on that compact disc. The problem is, your soul is not perfect, so a recording never will be." However, recording obviously agreed with her as she won a Gramophone Award for the recording of the "Bartók Violin Concerto No. 2" and the two rhapsodies with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle. She also began recording more with her brother and sister, and they called themselves the Chung Trio. Her brother, Myung Whun Chung, was a winner of the 1974 Tchaikovsky Piano competition and has been music director of the Paris Opera and head of the Orchesstra of the Academia Santa Cecilia in Rome. Her sister, Myung Wha, plays the cello and has won the Geneva International Competition. In 1994, they released Beethoven's "Piano Trios Op. 11 and 97" which received great critical acclaim. The trio is well known in Korea, but also widely recognized throughout the world. She is quoted on Amazon.com as saying, "We have played together all our lives." The Chung Trio made a number of recordings including a performance of the Beethoven Triple Concerto with the Philharmonic Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon in the 1995-1996 season.
When Chung did tour, she would take her children with her when they were not in school. She also took them to Korea several times to experience the culture. Both the children learned to speak Korean. "That was important for me," Chung told Asia Week. Both children have also studied music extensively. Chung is considered an icon on Korea. She considers herself Korean, although she only lived there for a small percentage of her life, now living in southern England and New York City. "I'm Korean, and there's nothing that will change that," she told Asia Week.
In 2000, she won another Gramophone Award for her recording of the Strauss and Respighi Violin Sonatas with Krystian Zimmerman.
As her children grew older, Chung began to expand her performing schedule once again, but she did not slow down on her recordings. In February of 2001, her recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, played with the St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble, was released. Sensible Sound called her a "magnificent violinist" and stated, "Chung's interpretation is best described as elegant. Her phrasing is elegant, her tempos are elegant, her command of nuance is elegant." Later that year, in November, she released the recording of "Symphony No. 5; Brahms: Violin Concerto" with Sir Simon Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic. "Kyung Wha Chung can be a firebrand violinist, but here she's very much the aristocrat. She supplies gleaming tone and rhythmic acuity, but also delicacy and tenderness. Her hushed, high flickerings in the Joachim cadenza are breathtaking," stated the Dallas Morning News.
Even as an experienced concert violinist and recording artist, Chung sometimes will still get nervous. "Funnily enough, even after having been on all the major stages of the world, it took me a long time to get rid of those feelings of anxiety when I performed in New York. Every time I walked out in Carnegie Hall, I felt as though I were 19, about to play for the Leventritt Competition on that stage. I went to Carnegie Hall last December, to perform the Beethoven Concerto, and my children were sitting there with a big smile. I suddenly thought this is simply wonderful!" she told American Record Guide.
Chung continues to practice for several hours every day. When she has time, she enjoys gardening and teaching students. Chung remains one of the most sought-after international violin players.
American Record Guide, January/February 1999.
Dallas Morning News, November 13, 2001.
Rocky Mountain News, January 25, 1998.
Sensible Sound, August/September 2001.
Shanghai Star, April 11, 2000.
"Kyung Wha Chung," EMI Classics website, http://www.emiclassics.com/artists/biogs/chung.html (February 17, 2003).
"Music of Chance," Amazon.com website, http://www.amazon.com (February 17, 2003).
"The Virtuoso: Chung Kyung Wha," Asia Week website, http://www.pathfinder.com/asiaweek/95/20greats/chung.html (February 17, 2003).