Before embarking in a conversation with 21-year-old Korean pianist Hyuk Lee, I worked my way through some of his recordings on YouTube. Irrespective of the selected repertory – from Scarlatti and Haydn's sonatas to Sacrifice, a little contemporary gem by Fuyuhiko Sasaki – it was obvious that he has a clear sense of where he wants to go and of what he aims to achieve. A similar self-confidence tempered by modesty was palpable in the conversation we had.

Hyuk Lee
© Tae-Wook Kang
Lee currently lives in Moscow, where he has been a student in the piano class of Vladimir Ovchinnikov at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory since 2016. I caught up with him as he was preparing to leave for Yaroslavl to perform Prokofiev’s challenging Piano Concerto no. 2. We talked about his career path, his affinity for certain composers and his future plans.

Born in 2000 in Seoul, Lee does not come from a family with a musical background. He recalls vividly his first contact with classical music: he was three or four and having fun on a playground, when he heard some music (possibly Tchaikovsky) and “fell in love with it”, basking an entire day in that soundscape. His mother quickly enrolled him in a local music academy, first registering him for violin classes and, days later, enrolling him for piano lessons as well. He has been dividing his time between the two instruments ever since.

Prepared to renounce neither the piano nor the violin, striving to play both at the highest possible level – his “main goal”, he told me – Lee is indeed a singular case among the young musicians active today. (We mused a bit about other examples in the history of musical interpretation, from Mozart to Georges Enescu and Julia Fischer). But that is not all. He also dreams of “becoming a great conductor” even if he did not start any formal studies yet. But continuing his journey means steely determination and a draconic practice regimen: except for the moments he is preparing for a competition and must focus on his piano playing – more on that later – Lee practices for four hours daily on each of the two instruments.

There have been several important turning points in his career that he likes to point out. When he was seven, with his family only intermittently able to afford private piano lessons, he won the third prize in a competition organised by a local music high school that allowed him to continue studying there for the next several years. Three years later, a special prize in a local "Young Mozart” competition brought the chance to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 11 in Salzburg. In 2012, he won the first prize at the 8th Moscow Young Chopin Piano competition, an achievement that made him decide once and for all that he wanted to “become a professional musician”. At that point, he told me, “I understood that music is everything for me”. In the same year, Lee became a scholarship student of the Doosan Yonkang Foundation and his musical studies have been continuously supported ever since by grants from the Korean organisation.

I asked him how he picked Moscow as a place to pursue his studies. As it can often happen in life, it was a random encounter that opened new gates. In 2013 he travelled from Seoul to Vienna for a summer of master classes. Already there, he registered for the Johannes Brahms competition in Pörtschach, in both the violin and piano sections. Still very much a junior, he did not pass the first rounds, but one of the members of the violin jury, Sergey Kravchenko, impressed by his abilities, invited Lee to attend the preparatory Central Music School of Moscow’s Tchaikovsky State Conservatory. And so was history made. The transplant to Moscow must have been quite difficult for a non-Russian speaking 14-year old with very few other Korean students within reach, but in the meantime Lee has been joined in Moscow by his seven-years younger brother Hyo, also a talented piano and violin player, enabling the two to start playing together as a duo.

After two years in the Central Music School and several others as a piano student in the Moscow Conservatory, Lee’s musical tastes remain very eclectic. As a pianist, his interests range from Russian music (Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich) to the German Romantic repertoire (Schubert, Schumann, Brahms) to French Music (Ravel, Messiaen) and composers closer to today (such as Ligeti). He declares his love for Mozart and Haydn. As a violinist, he enjoys playing Paganini – “he was such a virtuoso” – Eugène Ysaÿe, or Mozart and Shostakovich's concertos. Once interested in a composer’s output, he tries to explore his entire oeuvre, not just particular works. At the same time, Lee does not to want to be pigeonholed. “I love to learn new repertoire whenever I am able to do it”, he told me. Works he explored recently include Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Schubert's late sonatas and opuses by Messiaen and Ligeti.

Hyuk Lee
© HIPIC

On top of his busy schedule, Lee is also a serious chess player. He studies chess at night, after the long hours of music practice. He mentions Prokofiev and David Oistrakh as great musicians that were also more than amateur chess players, as well as Mark Taimanov, a Soviet grandmaster who was also a reputable concert pianist. Asked if he believes in a possible connection between chess playing and music making, he comments about the great concentration needed in both cases and considers the equivalence between “deep thinking” in chess and digging into the musical text in order to understand a composer’s intentions. He believes that “honesty”, “directly going to the music”, “finding the composer’s thoughts in the musical score” are the most important traits of his interpretative style. The ability to “communicate with the public” is also critical. After a long period of Covid-related shut down, “sharing music with others” has become even more important.

Lee is a laureate of several important competitions. At only 16, he was crowned winner of the 10th edition of the Ignacy Paderewski Piano Competition in Bydgoszcz, Poland, playing Sergey Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 in the final round. Two years later, he won the Third Prize at the 10th Hamamatsu International Piano Competition, the Japanese contest whose prestige has significantly grown since the first edition, two decades ago. As someone who tried his chances in several more competitions and is now in the midst of preparing for two major ones that have been postponed from last year – the Queen Elisabeth in May and the 18th Fryderyk Chopin in October – Lee is fully aware of how winning a contest can boost one’s career into a higher orbit. I asked him to elaborate on the topic. Can an interpreter find success nowadays without proving himself in the competition circles? He does not deny the possibility, but he thinks it is difficult to get noticed. “Competitions are the greatest place to be noticed by somebody else, by jury members, by sponsors, by management,” he said. That is why he continues to compete even if – I am certain – his passion for music making would have him continue his pursuits regardless of his results in competitions. As per my understanding, Hyuk means “big” in Korean, but depending on its hanja or spelling, it can also mean “shining” or “abundant”. The attributes seem to be an excellent fit for both Lee’s personality and his musical talent.

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic.

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