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December Artist Profile: Yura Lee

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Who influenced you most in life?

When I look back, I am surprised at how my biggest influences in life were sometimes indirect, in a way. I had many wonderful violin and viola teachers, but at the end of the day, the musician who shaped my musical thinking the most is Sviatoslav Richter. I never knew him personally—the closest I got to meeting him was seeing him at a concert I attended when I was about 7 or 8 years old, in Seoul. It was right around the time I started playing the violin very seriously. When I attended this concert, I had no clue about what a great musician he was, nor what makes music great. The only visual thing I clearly remember is that the concert hall was pitch dark, except for a single light stand next to his piano that lit his sheet music. This concert by Richter is etched quite viscerally into my memory to this day. It's not only the lone lighting that I remember so clearly, but I can clearly recall Richter's astounding musical spirit. I think this is another example of how music reaches people's hearts, with or without a musical education or a detailed knowledge. Great music can move anyone's hearts. As the years went by and I studied music seriously, my favorite kind of classical music to listen to was always solo piano, especially Schubert piano sonatas. I've been listening to Sviatoslav Richter's last Schubert Sonata (D960) almost every single day, for nearly 15 years now. It's almost like a religion for me—in his music, I find peace, comfort, nature's order, truth—the things one wish upon when searching for something higher, or for an example when one is believing in a religion—I find that all in music, and especially his music.


If not a musician, what occupation would you choose? 

It's hard to answer this question, because as long as I can remember, my whole life has been devoted to being a musician. But I guess the easiest way to answer this question is for me to look back at myself, and pick out what makes me enter the "zone" so to speak—where nothing else matters, and I am in this higher mental plane, in a way. Besides music, there are two other things that I am completely consumed, entranced, and thrilled by—cooking, and industrial ("commercial") design. Ever since I was young, I was always interested in how things were designed, even the most seemingly mundane things—from buildings to tables to even spoons. I read books about design voraciously, and I had subscribed to every design magazine I knew. I still dream about doing this for a living, especially when seeing interesting designs makes me off-the-wall excited. But then, I listen to a Schubert piano work and then, three seconds later... I know I will always be a musician.

The second thing is cooking. I've always loved to eat good food—I should also mention that Koreans generally love to eat, partly because the food in Korea is really exciting. I travelled a lot as a kid, always going from city to city for playing concerts. I was often in Europe and Asia, and among all the great food I got to eat, I remember my taste buds being most excited in three places especially—northern Spain (Basque region), France (pretty obvious why!), and Niigata, Japan. Until I was 16 years old, all I knew was how to eat good food. But then I started living by myself, and I was interested in what makes good food so great, and how one can master that. The first cuisine I learned to cook was French, which I learned by eating a lot of it, reading a lot about it, and countless trial and error. And then came northern Italian cuisine. In one period, I was very obsessed with Norway and tried to learn Norwegian cuisine, but then I couldn't find any reindeer meat in NYC... The only reindeer I could find in NYC were in the Christmas displays at Henri Bendel or Bergdorf department stores... Spanish cooking has been really hard to master for me. I guess I should stick to more traditional, rustic style of Spanish cooking, but I went straight for molecular gastronomy... Hervé This and Ferran Adrià are my heroes. But I don't suggest anyone stocking up their pantry with hydroxypropyl methylcellulose or sucroglycerides at home! I always used to say that "I'm a cook not a baker" but these days I'm baking like crazy. I've been known to bake overnight non-stop and have a bakery-worth load of goodies by daybreak. Honestly, the only other place, other than my kitchen, where I am able to channel such energy and adrenaline is on the concert stage. Other than baking, I love making chocolate truffles. After I make a box of them, they're like my babies, and I have a hard time letting them go! I have this far-fetched dream that when I'm too undextrous to play the violin and all its double-stops and octaves, I will open a little restaurant and spend my retirement years cooking away with Schubert playing in the background.


When not playing the violin/viola, what would someone most likely find you doing? 

Reading great chefs' cookbooks and ferociously cooking (or attempting to cook) what I just read; making earrings for fun and dreaming about opening an earring business; coming up with weird designs for jewelry that sometimes work, sometimes not; reading magazines about industrial/commercial design; going to museums; taking photos with my 35mm film (!) camera which I adore; and my favorite, which you will often catch me doing, is walking around aimlessly on a cold, windy winter day with a gigantic triple latte in hand—I love cold breeze! Most people would want to retire somewhere warm like Florida, but for me, the colder the better - I imagine myself retiring somewhere in the Arctic, maybe Svalbard or something. I wish I could live in the Arctic now!


What book have you read most recently? 

My favorite book of all is Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov—I read that over and over again. I do have a penchant for repetition, I guess. I revolve around Schubert, Nabokov, and Ingmar Bergman. But the book I am reading these days is Born Round by the former New York Times food editor Frank Bruni. It is hilarious and insightful, and I'm loving every minute reading it.


Who are your favorite composers? 

There are so many! But if I were to pick a favorite, it's Schubert, for sure. But I feel guilty playing favorites! I will listen to anything once, and some, much more than once. I find myself reaching for J.S. Bach more often than others, not just for listening pleasure, but for personal practice discipline. Every day, his music amazes me. I love playing and listening to Bartók, Kodaly, and Janáček. Janáček 's piano music makes me so jealous towards pianists! I would be so happy to be able to play them one day. I also love Xenakis and Saariaho. I'm very interested in electronic music, whether it's categorized as classical or not, and I'm fascinated by composers like Xenakis and Saariaho who incorporate electronics into their music.


What is your favorite NYC destination?

I grew up in New York City right near Central Park, and spent a lot of time there, so I'd have to say it's my favorite place to be! I used to coax my gym teacher in middle school to have gym classes in Central Park instead of our school gym. It almost always worked, and our gym "class" was always rolling around in grass or playing around those black volcanic rocks in the park. When I go there now, I'm filled with happy memories. My sister (9 years younger than me) and I used to spend a lot of time playing around the fountain in front of the Met Opera. We lived on 68th Street for a few years, and then at 60th Street, so Lincoln Center was sort of our backyard, in a way. The fountain at the Met is so different now, really fancy with all these digital things. But back when we were growing up, it was a fun, rather cozy place to hang out. Our favorite day at the fountain was when the Christmas tree went up! My sister and I also spent a lot of time browsing books at the Barnes and Noble on 66th Street & Broadway—when I heard that they were closing, I was very sad, to say the least! As an adult, I do go to Strand Bookstore more often, though. You'll also see me at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) on my days off—I just love going there. And all these restaurants in East Village and downtown... NYC is an amazing city, and a city where I feel at home, the most.


What are the 5 most-listened-to songs on your ipod?

I usually listen to my favorite Sviatoslav Richter's Schubert D960 Piano Sonata on my CD player, so I guess I don't have a count of how many times I've listened to that, although it would be quite a lot. But on my iPod (according to my iTunes play count meter thing), it says the most played songs are by Massive Attack—I am their biggest fan. Also near the top are Bill Evans (especially Live from Village Vanguard recordings), Anner Bylsma's Bach Suites, and Aphex Twin.