Violinist plays by feel A romantic: Chee-Yun yearns for music that spills from the soul.

October 25, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The tragically short-lived violinist Michael Rabin, who died at the age of 35, is now all but forgotten -- even by most violinists.

But not by the young Korean-American violinist Chee-Yun, who had not yet learned to walk when Rabin died in 1972.

"It took my breath away the first time I heard it," Chee-Yun says of her reaction as a 9-year-old in Seoul to Rabin's playing on a record her pianist-sister had brought her. "His playing was so personal. So much facility was combined with so much soul -- you could feel the music coming right out of his [core].

"Sometimes I feel that way," adds Chee-Yun, who will perform Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto tonight in Kraushaar Auditorium. "I feel it just coming right out of my system and I know that audiences can feel it as well."

Chee-Yun is one of several brilliant young women violinists -- Midori and Sarah Chang, among them -- of Asian descent on the musical scene now. Like the others, she was an extraordinary child prodigy. By the age of 12, she had won every competition Korea had to offer and she was brought to New York by her parents to study at the Juilliard School -- where her 17-year-old sister, Cheu-Yun, was studying the piano. At Juilliard, she studied with Dorothy DeLay, who was also the teacher of Midori.

A year later, the 13-year-old Chee-Yun made her debut with the New York Philharmonic. Several intelligently programmed and insightful records on the Denon label -- the most recent combines the rarely heard Szymanowski Sonata with the more familiar one of Franck -- have made her a favorite topic of conversation among violin aficionados.

But the stereotype of the Asian woman violinist -- technically assured, fearless in front of audiences, but musically soulless -- galls her.

"I suppose people fit me into that framework," she says. "But believe me, every time I play I wish I had better technique and that audiences didn't make me so nervous that it affected my intonation."

Noting that some of the great Russian-Jewish violinists of the early 20th century, such as Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman and Efrem Zimbalist, suffered from similar stereotyping from Western European (particularly German) music critics and audiences, Chee-Yun says she's even heard such remarks from other musicians.

"A pianist my own age told me last summer that 'it must be hard for you to play Western music.' I told him that attitudes like his cause some of society's worst problems, and that a musician -- of all people -- should know better," she says. "Musicians, after all, speak a universal language."

The truth is that Chee-Yun, the Japanese-American Midori and the Chinese-American Sarah Chang play quite differently: Midori is the most classically refined; Chang, the youngest of the three, plays with the most purity and innocence; and Chee-Yun, like her idol Michael Rabin, is the most romantic.

It is Chee-Yun who is not afraid to use old-fashioned slides, who investigates out-of-the-way late romantic works such as the Szymanowski Sonata, and who is the most likely to perform 18th-century masters such as Bach in an open-hearted, old-fashioned manner instead of the currently correct style that calls for less vibrato and more restraint.

"Call me old-fashioned, if you like," says Chee-Yun. "I like lush playing. I think the playing of people like Elman and [Fritz] Kreisler was fabulous and I'm not ashamed of learning from them. The violin is such a sensuous instrument -- why waste time trying to be cold when you can be so warm?"

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