Legendary virtuoso violinist Kyung Wha Chung celebrates a triumphant return to performing after recovering from a finger injury that almost ended her career.
Losing the use of her left index finger in 2005 pretty much put an end to the high-flying, globe-trotting career of South Korean violin virtuoso Kyung Wha Chung. “During a rehearsal, my finger just collapsed and I couldn’t play anymore,” says Chung, who will be playing her first London recital next week in more than 10 years, during an interview at a posh London hotel.
The injury, due to weakening she attributes to a cortisone overdose, might have thrown a lesser spirit than Chung, 66, into a spiral of despair. Instead, she is full of enthusiasm for making a limited comeback, and can also see a macabre upside to her injury.
“Why do you think you are having an interview with me?” quips the diminutive Chung. “Because you are curious what a violinist like me goes through when I have a hand injury. There are a gazillion people who have hand injuries.”
Chung may scoff it off, but for violinists, losing the use of the left index finger makes it impossible to press down on the strings to produce the right notes, rendering them a bit like a one-handed pianist. It wasn’t anything she would have wished to happen to anyone, especially herself, but Chung says she took the opportunity to re-examine her life, which had up until then had been driven mostly by the pressure of the concert circuit.
“My personal life was something I could spend more time on, and so I’m forever grateful that I went through that period,” says the mother of two sons. “I’m relieved of a lot of excess luggage. I’m freer, lighter. I came to terms with all the things that I didn’t have time to question because my immediate challenge was to go on stage.”
Also, as her finger slowly healed with years of therapy, she learned how to do something only a virtuoso prevented from playing her instrument could do: play the violin in her head. “For instance, after coming out of five years of not playing, and then to do the six unaccompanied Bach (sonatas and partitas), after not having played. I worked it out all in my head with every possibility of bowing and so on,” she says.
Born in 1948 in Seoul, Chung and her siblings – her younger brother, Myung-Whun Chung, is a conductor and pianist, while her older sister, Myung-Wha Chung, plays cello – had already made a name for themselves as musical prodigies in South Korea by the time they were entering their teens, often playing as a trio.
But realising that her children needed more training and exposure, Chung’s mother relocated the family to New York, where older sister Myung-Soh Chung was studying the flute at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music.
Impressed by Chung’s audition, Juilliard accepted the 13-year-old, awarding her with full scholarship. But it wasn’t always an easy ride. Chung struggled with the language, gender and etnic barriers in 1960s America, but persevered under the strict instructions of her violin teacher Ivan Galamian.
She first attracted notice in 1967 when she tied for first prize with fellow Galamian student Pinchas Zukerman in the prestigious Edgar Leventritt Competition in New York. It was the only time the judges awarded a joint victory in the history of the now discontinued competition.
Even though she had won the competition, most people still regarded her as a fluke. It wasn’t until she stepped in for Itzhak Perlman in London to nail a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in 1970 that the classical music world realised Chung was no flash in the pan.
From then on, Chung traced a three-decade long career performing and recording music all across the world, and has since been acknowledged as one of the best virtuoso violinist of her time.
A new Decca box set of her collected recordings shows her proficiency on a wide range of music, from Bartok to Mendelssohn to Brahms – whom she especially adores – to chamber performances with the likes of renowned pianists Krystian Zimerman and Radu Lupu.
But Chung, who gave up playing the piano when she was a child to begin what would become a lifelong romance with the violin, attributes the foundation of her success to just one note.
“For a string player, there is the challenge of finding that one touch of sound that can go immediately into somebody’s soul,” she says, adding that she figures she tied with Zukerman for the Leventritt award because of the way she played the first note, a B flat, on Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy. “So you can do it with one note,” she laughs. – Reuters