Interview: Esther Yoo on the loneliness of the long-distance violin virtuoso

Esther Yoo PIC: Marco Borggreve
Esther Yoo PIC: Marco Borggreve
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Life on the road for the young international soloist can be many things: exhilarating and carefree one minute, lonely and introspective the next. Most globetrotting solo artists will experience all of that to varying degrees at some time or other. The trick is to spot the danger signs before they take hold. It surprised me to discover that the brilliant 23-year-old violin virtuoso, American-born Esther Yoo, finds time to contemplate such issues, but it is something she speaks as passionately about as the music and accolades that have filled her young life since making her first concerto appearance at the age of eight, and in 2010 becoming the youngest ever winner of the prestigious International Sibelius Violin Competition.

Yoo is in Scotland next week to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It’s just one stop in a busy schedule that currently sees her jetting between her home in Belgium and concert halls in Hawaii, Hong Kong, London, Malta and Canada with a package of concertos that also includes the Sibelius and Glazunov. Frantically busy she may be, but in the course of our conversation, Yoo appears remarkably level-headed and relaxed.

“It’s all about getting the balance right”, she says. And sure enough, her professional life is not just about going it alone. She and two of her former BBC New Generation Artist friends – cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, and pianist Zhang Zuo – recently formed the piano trio Z.E.N. (an acronym of their first names), which has just released its debut recording on Deutsche Gramophon and completed a debut tour of the UK and China. “It’s a great way to offset the loneliness of being an individual performer”, she says. “It’s nice to make music with friends.”

Yoo has also been enjoying a recent foray into the world of film music, playing the prominent violin solo in Dan Jones’ soundtrack for Dominic Cooke’s British film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella On Chesil Beach. “It was a great journey for me to record this, because the lead female character Florence, played by Saorse Ronan, is a violinist who leads a string quartet,” Yoo explains. “She’s meant to be 23, and so am I.”

For Yoo, the experience turned out to be more than a mere session gig. “There are a lot of things that Florence can’t express verbally in the script, so in a way, the violin really plays an extra voice in the movie.” Yoo is currently working on the soundtrack album.

Besides all that, Yoo is effectively still studying her instrument, travelling to Munich whenever she can to have lessons with Ana Chumachenco. “I’m not in school as much these days,” she says. “But it’s a connection I’ve had for 10 years now, and it’s still helpful to hear Ana’s thoughts on my playing.”

As for maintaining a mental balance, Yoo does more than simply think about her wellbeing. “The whole issue of mental health in young people is very important to me,” she explains. “And it’s something I’ve become an advocate of through my current work as artist-in-residence at Cambridge Corn Exchange, and will continue to do next year when I take up a similar role with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As well as playing great concerts with the RPO, I’ll be supporting projects in its outreach programme.”

Yoo recognises its huge importance, having herself been thrown in at the deep end of a brutal profession. The signs are she’s dealt with it sensibly. But modern life is so stressful, she says, it’s important, especially for musicians, to be educated in the ways of maintaining mental health.

“As I was growing up, it wasn’t something teachers talked about,” she says. “It was all just about mastering the instrument and music making. Yet mental health has so much to do with performance, how our emotions are channelled in the right way. Sometimes you have to switch off and have time to yourself. That way your brain doesn’t become overcrowded with thoughts, and you have space to think about the music and why you’re doing it.”

Someone asked Yoo recently about the difference between a modern-day artist and the older generations of Oistrakh and Heifitz. “It struck me that they couldn’t jet set from one city to the next playing a concert each night as we do. They’d be sitting on a ship for weeks with a lot more time to reflect. There’s a lesson to learn from that.” ■

Esther Yoo plays Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with the RSNO at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 8 December, and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall,

9 December, www.rsno.org.uk