september 2011

Klara Min: ‘Music is not only a profession, but also a reflection of life’ (Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Classical Perspectives

‘I Can’t Imagine Myself Without Music’

On her new album, South Korea’s celebrated pianist Klara Min explores the work of her homeland’s popular composers

South Korean pianist Klara Min is a musician of eloquence and impassioned fire whose performance is most defined by its beauty of tone and sensitivity. Her performances have been praised by New York Concert Review as having "a lovely, nuanced tone, genuine expressiveness, excellent technique, exuberance and vitality" and by the Polish publication Przeglad Polski for their "beautiful, rich sound and splendid vitality." Ms. Min has been concertizing in North America, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, in such venues as New York's Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Barge Music, Gasteig Hall in Munich, Berlin Philharmonie Hall in Berlin, Germany and the KBS Broadcast System hall in Seoul. She has appeared as a soloist with Seoul Symphony Orchestra, Korean Symphony Orchestra, New York Sinfonietta, Jupiter Symphony, American Chamber Orchestra, and Manhattan Chamber Orchestra. Her performances have been broadcast nationwide on SBS Channel Network in Korea.

Since her New York debut at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, for which she premiered works by living composers, she has collaborated with American composers Henry Martin, John Corigliano and Robert Sirota, and Korean composer Unsuk Chin, who is active in Berlin, Germany.

Both as soloist and producer, Ms. Min has presented "Brahms and Schumann,” "Mozart's Twenty-five Piano Concerti" and "Evenings of Piano Concerti" Concert Series in New York City.

Ms. Min also has been a piano professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and an assistant teacher at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at University of Cincinnati.

She gives concerts in North America, Europe, and Asia on a yearly basis. Ms. Min is a recipient of Samsung scholarship.

Klara Min, live at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Center, New York, NY, April 2008, performs Schumann’s Kreisleriana Op.16

A woman with an aura of confidence, a petite pianist with an elegant bearing, Ms. Min heads for other worlds on her new album, Pa-Mun, Ripples On Water (Piano Music by Korean Composers), exploring some hidden gems from a select group of 20th Century Korean composers little known in the U.S. but celebrated in their native land. Rather than survey her country’s traditional or folk music, Ms Min has selected compositions by Korean composers who draw upon Western, mid-20th century compositional techniques, such as Isang Yung (whose five miniature pieces titled Fünf Stücke are atonal); Younghi Pagh-Paan, whose Pa-mun (Ripples on Water) is an Impressionistic evocation of play and the motion of water; and Uzon Chae, whose various Preludes reveal both the influence of atonalism and of Bach. As All noted, “So much of this music is universal; that is to say, it could have been composed anywhere in the world. Klara Min has done a worthy job of tackling challenging music by the leading composers of her homeland.”

Chloe Hwang of the Korean Cultural Service recently interviewed Ms. Min. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

What is the background on your new album?

The production was planned about three years ago. I recorded in November 2009, but it took a while until the album release on July 25, 2011.

Why did you choose to work with Korean composers?

I believe that it is the responsibility of performers of this generation to premiere living composers music. The works of Korean composers were never recorded with international labels. I thought it's a meaningful thing to do. All of them--Isang Yun, Sukhi Kang, Uzong Chae, Chung Gil Kim, and Younghi Pagh-Paan--are amazing artists with unique styles.

How did the sessions go?

The album's recording engineer, Leszek Wojcik, from Carnegie Hall, has precise, keen ears. The music on the album was extremely modern and new to both of us. It was a fun experience, trying to interpret the music together. I enjoyed exchanging opinions and reading the complex sheets of music with him.

‘I prefer live performances, because when tensions are transformed into another form of energy, something greater comes out.’

Do you prefer recording or playing live more?

I prefer live performances, because when tensions are transformed into another form of energy, something greater comes out. It's definitely more fun and thrilling.

What influenced you the most to become a pianist?

Music itself--nobody has ever forced me to do anything. My mother has been a piano teacher who graduated from Yonsei University with a major in composition. I became familiar with piano sounds since I was a child and picked it up myself. I enjoyed the sound and wanted to play.

Why did you come to Manhattan School of Music?

I always wanted to study abroad to see the world and experience different cultures to broaden my scope. Music is a universal language, and one can always learn from diverse environment. I had an intense training at Yewon School and Seoul Arts High School as a teenager. It was a very competitive atmosphere, so when I decided to come to New York, I wanted to give myself room to be more proactive to find my own voice rather than being told what to do. Manhattan School of Music provided such a space for me.

Were there any hardships studying abroad?

Although New York is a cosmopolitan city that appreciates and accepts diverse ethnicity, it took me a long time to feel that this is my home and where I belong. That's basically the bottom line. On top of that, it's very hard to make a living as a musician. I hadn't realized it until Korea had a severe financial crisis and my parents could no longer support me. It was a 180-degree change in my life. Since then, I have stood alone and started working for the first time in my life. My mid- to late-20s was a constant struggle for survival: I worked as a tutor, church accompanist and bartender and learned how life can be challenging, as most musicians would agree. My 20s were definitely not a flat land without any ups and downs, but I never thought I was going through hardships, because I had a dream, and I was in love with music, in which I was eager to express myself to reach out. I just never had a time to feel sorry for myself. The 20s are very vulnerable times, and one is apt to get lost. So you have to be careful who you listen to and who you hang out with. It always helps to have a role model and perceptive mentor so you don’t waste your time. After going through this and that, I entered my 30s, and I feel more comfortable with myself to focus on what really matters the most.

‘I feel more comfortable with myself to focus on what really matters the most’ (Photo: Jimi Celeste)

How did you deal with language and cultural barriers?

A communicational skill is mandatory in any profession, especially in the classical music field. Especially in the States and as informational technology develops so quickly, it is vital to be a good communicator. If two pianists, A and B, are somewhat equally talented, but A is a better verbal communicator, then presenters are likely to choose A over B. Cultural barriers? Yes, many times I still feel that. I think childhood education really defines one's identity strongly. It is scientifically proven that human beings are likely to believe what they are used to more than the proven facts. But I also think that it is important to open your heart and mind to others with humility. It is easier to close your heart, but it takes courage to open it.

How do you normally practice?

I try my best to practice regularly. I believe the number of hours doesn't mean much--what matters is how much I focus during the practice. Quality and content rather than quantity are what matter.

What do you consider your most memorable performance?

A Concerto Performance with Sinfonieorchester Berlin in March 2011. It was, as always, a euphoric experience with German audiences, which are exceptionally serious and respectful of music. I can't forget the great acoustics, members of the orchestra and the beautiful Hamburg Steinway piano at the Berlin Philharmonie Hall. Above all, I loved the stage--360 degrees surrounded by the audience seats. I felt much closer to the audience. I prefer this to a standard right profile stage.

Who are your rivals now?

There are a lot of young, beautiful, talented pianists all over the world. But I say, "An apple is an apple and an orange is an orange"--they have different colors but look beautiful together in a basket. Pianists and performers shine the most when they stay faithful to themselves and respect others at the same time. Everyone's tone and style differ, so no one can judge who is better than whom. Your favorite player might be someone's least favorite. Taste is a subjective matter, although there is always good or bad taste.

Did you ever consider a different career?

I didn't have any choice. I couldn't and still can't imagine myself without music because it's the way I am. If I quit music, I have to change myself and it's not going to be easy. But because this path is really difficult, I sometimes hit the wall and feel like I have nowhere to go. When I find myself on a dead-end street, I breathe in and out, take a break, recharge myself and start again.

Do you still get nervous before concerts?

Definitely! The degree of nervousness depends on my body conditions, level of preparation, and all the other little factors. Intimate proximity with audience in a small hall makes me more nervous than a vast space.

Klara Min, New York Concert Artists & Associates Artistic Director, discusses the challenges facing the classical music field today and how NYCA is enhancing the artistry and accessibility in its concert offerings.

You are a performer, recording artist, a teacher and also the founder/artistic director of New York Concert Artists & Associates. Which of these is your favorite role?

I like everything I do and try to enjoy the bumps in the road. But my role in the New York Concert Artists & Associates is particularly fulfilling because I get to help other musicians. Recruiting young pianists and giving them opportunities to perform makes me happy. And that's something I've wanted to do. Many pianists around the world search for opportunities, and we offer auditions in Paris, New Yor, and Seoul. We also have annual concerts in May at Good Shepherd Church, 66th Street and Broadway.

Where do Korean pianists stand in the world?

Korean pianists are doing very well internationally. China will be kicking in soon. Generally, Asian students persevere in training with their devotion and hard work.

How is living in New York? What do you like the best about the city?

When I first came here, a taxi driver told me, "You have to be wild to live in New York City." I didn't understand what he meant then, but now I do. This city really strengthens people, only ones who endure or enjoy the pressure survive, and everyone needs to work hard. What I like most about New York City is that there are so many opportunities once you look for them. It's indeed "the city that never sleeps"! That's why I think it's a perfect place for young professionals.

What kinds of music do you listen to?

I listen to anything that doesn't seem distracting or noisy to me. Beautiful songs with and without lyrics, symphony, strings, vocals, and birds tweeting. But I can never listen to heavy metal.

Who is your favorite artist?

Oh, I have many, but I try not to idolize a person over his/her artistry. I would say my teacher, Wonmi Kim. She is a remarkable pianist, teacher and individual who lives in Italy. And James Tocco, who I admire wholeheartedly.

What advice would you give to young Korean pianists?

Have faith and be true to yourself. You can only do your best after all. Learn English to be able to speak fluently. Pianists, unlike string players, are always alone in practice rooms and more prone to be self-centered. Interact with other musicians and make good friends. Enjoy the ride!

Interview excerpts from the Korean Cultural Service New York

The Korean Cultural Service New York (KCSNY) is a government institution inaugurated in December 1979 to establish and promote Korean culture and aesthetics in New York. KCSNY provides diverse cultural and artistic activities including gallery exhibitions, performing arts concerts, film festivals, and educational programs. KCSNY also engages in other performing arts events that introduce traditional Korean music, dance, cuisine, and fashion. In particular, KCSNY sponsors Korea Music Foundation and hosts concerts and recitals attracting annual audience of over 1,500 people.



The Critical Perspective

'A poetic approach to the piano'

from a review by Grego Applegate Edwards at Gapplegate Classical-Modern

Pa-Mun, Ripples On Water (Naxos 8.572406) exposes us to five Korean composers and eight solo piano works spanning the time period of 1958-2004. Isang Yun (1917-1995) will likely be remembered by those who followed the modern classical music of the '50s and '60s as it appeared on record. Other names may be less familiar: Younghi Pagh-Paan, Sukhi Kang, Uzong Chae, and Chung Gil Kim.

The pieces to a western ear do not sound especially Korean on the surface of things--that is, they do not especially resemble the traditional Korean classical and folk music one has heard. What all works have in common to some extent is a heightened feeling for sound and silence, quietude and movement, which of course need not be particularly Korean. Debussy, Ravel, Scriabin, Messaien all in their own way made good use of such contrasts.

But the composers here do not sound like them either. There are contemplative turns, there are quasi-neo-minimalist uses of repetition, and most of all there is a poetic approach to the piano, as if each phrase is the strain of some unknown and indirectly expressed poem.


'A worthy job of tackling challenging music by the leading composers of her homeland'

V. Vasan at All

klaraQuite often one thinks of classical or art music as originating in the West, but this album proves that there is indeed a vibrant culture of art music from Asia. ... South Korean pianist Klara Min showcases works from a few 20th century Korean composers. Younghi Pagh-Paan's Pa-mun (Ripples on Water) captures a sense of play and the motion of water. One hears slow ripples first, then faster droplets or faster ripples. Though there is emotion here, it is overall a quiet piece. Isang Yun's Fünf Stücke is a series of five miniature pieces that are atonal, or, rather, are not primarily about linear harmonic or melodic structure. Min makes each note count, and keeps with the character of each piece, playing the Allegro brightly and actively, and the Allegretto active and moving forward. Yun's Interludium A shows off Min's athletic playing, and she never seems to miss a note anywhere. Perhaps the most interesting works on the album are by Uzong Chae. These Preludes have interesting chords and are slightly tonal. The Prelude No. 7 even briefly goes tonal, with an echo of Bach. Prelude No. 8 is also fairly tonal, with a hypnotic repeating pattern. Min clearly chooses which notes to emphasize, giving shape to these patterns, and this makes the piece engaging. Also hypnotic is the second movement of Go-Poong (Memory of Childhood) with its repeating motif with carefully placed notes sprinkled above. Min is able to bring mystery into this entire work, which is sometimes dark and menacing. Klara Min has done a worthy job of tackling challenging music by the leading composers of her homeland.


'Klara Min makes a valiant effort...'

A dissenting view by Mike Maguire at

(Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Reviewers want to write good reviews, really. In this CD of South Korea piano music from the Late 20th Century, the pianist Klara Min makes a valiant effort and she is definitely a gifted performer (She's also very attractive, which is prerequisite for all new classical artists). But I have two major complaints, which make me sound crankier than I really am. First of all, is this Korean music? Sounds more like a Second Viennese School epidemic swept over South Korean--only the North Koreans would have the good sense and army to keep this music out of their country. Not only (in general), is the music completely lifted from 1920-30s Germany, it is entirely derivative of that style, and is also dated in that style--being at least 20 years behind the proto-serialist curve. My second complaint is Klara Min is not the player for this music--although some aspects she does very well. Her whole approach is too politely Mozartian, her playing lacking the exaggerated tempos, dynamics, and phrasing needed to bring this already dying music alive.

The first piece is by Pagh-Paan (1971) and I swear I'm listening to the Schoenberg Piano Concerto, 30 years earlier. The next piece is the famous Isang Yun (1958) with more Schoenberg/Webern barnburning derivativeness.

Finally, in the next piece, "Interludium "by Isang Yun (1982) there's more musical interest, as Korea no longer sounds like a satellite of Weimar Germany. There's More messiaenic /French pianism and a more post-serial /post modern approach. This style also includes a Stockhausen/Asian neo-simplicity and as well as 19th C /French pianistic gestures. Formally it pits more reflective spacious sections with violent passionate ones. Her best playing throughout the CD is in the slow reflective stuff -just a simple repeated motif--it's very effective. She brings a kind of delicate, brittle vulnerability to her playing--which is great for Mozart. But this music also needs extreme playing--flawless transitions and violence where the piano timbre turns to white heat.

The next piece is Sukhi Kang (1966) and we're back to very sparse Webernishness with slightly more tonalized rows. She does do the row melodies with exquisite shaping. Sadly this music is very much from the 1930s sound world--other major composer in the '60s were already stretching serialism to its death kneel conclusion.

The penultimate composer is Uzong Chae (2003) and as Ms. Min has chosen three excerpts from a larger piece, it's difficult to know the composer's vision. It's like still photographs of a feature length movie. This is regrettably the only 21st Century piece stylistically --Coplandesque motif (Billy the Kid) over multi-layered tonality.

Finally, the last piece by Chung Gill Kim (1982) is again excerpts, so it's difficult to know the context of the music; at least it's not serial. There is some really interesting “stare music” (best music on the CD and more of her best playing) that repeats the same patterns in the left and right hand. This kind of playing requires a deep intuitive understanding of the shaping of the long patterns. It suddenly occurred to me there a kind of Russian folk quality present--I've never thought how close the countries are.

Unless you are researching the spread of the disease of academic serialism through the civilized world, this CD is probably not for you. To Klara Mins' credit, she brings a clear and sincere approach.

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