It’s a big leap from the exotic, alien trills of Vivian Fung’s solo “Birdsong” to the familiar strains of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. But for Kristin Lee — who just played the former with her new chamber series Emerald City Music and is about to play the second with Symphony Tacoma — it’s all music. And focusing on that music — rather than on success, or self-promotion — is how Lee has gone from a 5-year-old Korean prodigy to an international American artist.
But the travel’s good, too.
“I’m a big foodie, and that’s been a big part of wherever I go,” says Lee, talking on the phone from her New York home. “The beautiful thing about my job is that I travel. I really like to just understand different cultures and make friends, and food is a big part of that.”
Saying that Lee travels is like saying an orchestra plays notes. Last week, she’d just returned from concerts of Romantic string music in Seattle and Olympia with Emerald City, before heading back for this weekend’s Symphony Tacoma concerts in Gig Harbor and Tacoma. Recent gigs have seen her posting Instagram shots of dim sum feasts in Hong Kong, coconut drinking in Cuba and cathedrals in the Dominican Republic.
But then Lee’s first travels were because of the violin. Having begun lessons at age 5 in Korea, she won the Korea Times competition one year later and by age 10 had moved with her family to study in Atlanta with Sonja Foster. Since gaining her master’s at the Juilliard School of Music (including winning its concerto competition three times), 30-year-old Lee has built a concert career that’s as varied as it is extensive. She’s performed standard concerto repertoire with orchestras from Asia, Europe and the Americas; is concertmaster of the groundbreaking Metropolis Ensemble; toured with Lincoln Center chamber music society; premiered new music like Fung’s Violin Concerto; appearanced in PBS documentaries; and won competitions, including the Naumburg and the Avery Fisher Career Grant.
Last year, Lee co-founded Emerald City Music and serves as artistic director and regular violinist in concerts that weave together known and new works in unusual venues. Now she steps into the concerto spotlight in Tacoma, partly thanks to her travels and an unexpected friendship with symphony director Sarah Ioannides.
“After I won the Avery Fisher in 2015, Sarah saw my reel and reached out to book me for her orchestra in Spartanburg,” says Lee. “Then two weeks prior to that performance, I was booked for the National Symphony Orchestra of the Dominican Republic. It was the Nielsen concerto, a new work for me, and I had to focus really hard. They were getting a guest conductor and we ended up sharing a cab — it was a really lovely, beautiful British woman. We had a rehearsal, and got talking, and it turned out it was Sarah!”
The Nielsen was new for Ioannides also, says Lee, and the resulting hard work and trust created a strong bond.
“We became really close after that,” Lee says. “And she wanted to engage me for the Tacoma symphony.”
In the meantime, Ioannides invited Lee to perform the Vivaldi and Piazzolla “Four Seasons” with the Nordic Chamber Orchestra in Sweden in October.
“I really enjoy working with her,” says Lee of Ioannides. “She’s very open-minded, and willing to listen. … That’s not often the case with conductors. And with her, it feels very secure on stage, like playing chamber music, like we’re going together hand in hand.”
Interestingly, says Lee, this is the first time they are playing something together that they’re familiar with — the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. For two women who are passionate about new music —Ioannides performed Tan Dun’s “Water Passion” with the symphony last year, and regularly commissions pieces — it’s a step into traditional waters.
“I’m a huge champion of new music,” Lee says. “But my bigger vision is that I believe that all types of music should come together in one setting because the experience is so much stronger when you hear things in a new context. One time I took a week just listening to jazz, then heard a Schumann piece. I felt so refreshed, I heard it like never before. That was enlightening.”
The rest of the symphony program — Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” overture and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 — isn’t exactly new music, although it does explore the context that Tchaikovsky was a huge fan of Mozart.
But it will give Lee a chance to show exactly why she’s on such a stellar career trajectory: not her 1,300-plus Instagram followers, not her clean website and youthful vibe, not her passion for jazz and rock, not even her “comfort with stylistic diversity,” which The Strad magazine landed on as the criterion that separates her from the crowd. Nor is it only the flawless technique, melodic shaping and artistic maturity recently praised by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
No, what Lee focuses on is the music itself.
“(With social media and the Internet) there are so many ways to get your name out there, but how do you find opportunities beyond that?” she says. “At the end of the day, when I obsess over ‘what makes me stand out,’ I get to a bad place. The reason I do what I do is that I love music. I serve the music of Tchaikovsky, of Beethoven, of all these composers, that I like to share with the audience. My role is to bring the music … that always has to be the end goal. And standing out, that will come.”
Mozart and Tchaikovsky
Who: Symphony Tacoma under Sarah Ioannides with Kristin Lee, violin.
When-Where: 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Chapel Hill Presbyterian, 7700 Skansie Ave., Gig Harbor; 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Rialto Theater, 310 S. 9th St., Tacoma.