Hae-Sun Kang and the desire to go further

Interviews 10.02.2023

On the occasion of the festival Présences de Radio France, which puts itself on Korean time with its guest of honor Unsuk Chin, we met the violinist and soloist of the Ensemble Intercontemporain (EIC) Hae-Sun Kang, Korean artist and long-time friend of the composer. Hae-Sun Kang is also very involved in the event, and will play several times the music of her compatriot. She will be at the side of the composer and singer Héloïse Werner for the world premiere of close-ups commissioned by Radio France.

A member of the EIC since 1994, Hae-Sun Kang is a professor of chamber music and a teacher of Artist Diploma and Next Ensemble students at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris.

Hae-SunWere you born into a family of musicians?
My mother was a professional pianist and my sister is a pianist and harpsichordist living in Korea. My brother played the cello, which allowed us to play in a trio with my mother, but he has now gone in other directions. My father, who died a long time ago, was not a musician but contributed a lot to his children becoming one, by buying me the Italian violin that I have never left, a Balestrieri of 1764.

In what year did you arrive in France and what training did you have when you arrived?
My mother, a musician, dreamed of sending her two daughters to France so that we could be trained in the true Western musical tradition. So I arrived in Paris with my older sister (I was barely fifteen) and we both entered the CNSMD on rue de Madrid, she in the class of Robert Veyron-Lacroix and I with Christian Ferras. I obtained my prize after three years and I did a two-year postgraduate course with him, just before his death. Deprived of my teacher, I then travelled a lot to continue my training and I took part in many international competitions. I will mention first of all the Menuhin Competition in Paris where I obtained two special prizes, one for Ravel's Tzigane and the other for the slow movement of Brahms' third Sonata, to my great pride because at the time, Asian performers were often criticized for their lack of expressiveness in the romantic repertoire. My prize at the Rodolfo Lipizer International Violin Competition in Italy allowed me to obtain numerous concerts, as did the Montreal International Music Competition, the equivalent of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, which launched my career with the great concertos of the repertoire and extensive international tours.

Then you decide to settle in Paris...
In 1993, in fact, the year I passed the competition for concertmaster at the Orchestre de Paris, without really knowing what I was expecting. I was unanimously accepted, but I was not at all prepared to assume the position of super soloist in an orchestra. It's a leadership role with a community of musicians who expect you to act as a relay between the conductor (Semyon Bychkov at the time) and them. The Orchestre de Paris had never before entrusted this role to a woman, especially an Asian woman! It was a painful failure, something that affected me a lot; but "every cloud has a silver lining", as they say in France; Pierre Boulez, who came to conduct the Paris Orchestra, got me out of this unfortunate situation by inviting me to come and play at the EIC in 1994. Jacques Ghestem having had the good idea to retire two years earlier than planned, a place became available in the ranks of the violinists that I joined the same year after winning the entrance exam. 

How would you describe your own experience with Pierre Boulez?
It was an incredible opportunity to meet him; a real rescue at the most difficult time in my life as a musician. I didn't even have to tell him what was going on with the Orchestre de Paris. The whole musical world was talking about it! I can say that Pierre Boulez "saved my life". He gave me my chance as he did for so many others. The first year at the EIC was terrible for me because I was alone on the violin stand; Jeanne-Marie Conquer was on maternity leave and Maryvonne Le Dizès had taken a sabbatical. I had to learn the entire repertoire, including the great pieces by Boulez, Répons, ...explosante-fixe..., etc. I had never worked so hard in my life, but I had the ability to do so and this time I felt I belonged.

You say you go to Korea once a year to give concerts...
I went there a few times to play the concertos of the repertoire as a soloist with the different orchestras of Seoul before Unsuk Chin collaborated with Myung-Whun Chung in the Seoul Festival; I was able to play the concertos of Dusapin, Ligeti, Berg. She contributed a lot to import contemporary music in the programming and made a place for herself in her country, next to the master Chung and thanks to this festival which functioned for some eight years. She is now the director of the festival in Tongyeong, Isang Yun's birthplace.

 Are you recognized in your country with the same notoriety that you acquired in France?
I don't have an opinion on that, too far from my country today, even if my mother has invested a lot so that I could play in Korea. It is thanks to Unsuk Chin, who invited me every year, that I could discover the Korean scene.

How is contemporary music received by the Korean public?
The public is, as in France, fond of music from the great repertoire. But they know how to recognize, thanks to personalities like Myung-Whun Chung and Unsuk Chin, the quality and interest of what is proposed to them.

Where and when do you meet Unsuk Chin?
I met Unsuk Chin through the EIC, who played her when David Robertson was the director of the Ensemble; she came back a second time, in 2006, and decided to write a piece for me, the famous Double Bind ? (Double sens?) for violin and electronics that will be heard during the festival Présences. It's a rather theatrical piece that she asked me, jokingly, to play with a rather light and very low-cut outfit... Being rather explosive, Unsuk wanted me to leave my rather restrained attitude, due to my very strict education, and to go and find the liberated Korean woman inside me that I don't show... At the end of the piece, I have to pretend to break my violin! She would have liked me to play Double Bind on the stage of Studio 104, but I preferred to entrust the work to one of my students because it was a student concert in partnership with the CNSMD of Paris. Moreover, I had the opportunity to play his first violin concerto several times in Europe and also in Korea.

Were you able to talk together about her years in Hamburg with György Ligeti, a time she doesn't really like to talk about today?
She has often told me that her relationship with Ligeti was difficult. At the same time, having been Ligeti's student is rather prestigious! In the same way that I love to talk about my encounter with Pierre Boulez who was so important in my trajectory as a violinist. But Unsuk Chin, like Ligeti, is a strong personality and I want to believe that the confrontations must not have been always very tender.

I assume you were behind the EIC's tour of Korea in 2016 where you played Mar'eh, the Matthias Pintscher concerto...
was once again thanks to Unsuk Chin who invited the EIC and its conductor; I knew Matthias Pintscher before he joined the EIC because I had already played with him his first violin concerto in Brussels and Mar'eh in Berlin in its version for large orchestra; I asked him on that occasion to transcribe his concerto for the EIC's staff; which he did and it is in this version that it is played today on the international scene.
We return to Korea this year in April for a week of chamber music concerts and performances at the Seoul Art Center, Ilshin Hall and National University. This time, I was contacted and am leading the project.

Would you have a few words to tell us about Unsuk Chin's music, about his writing, you who feel it from the inside since you play it?
She speaks to me a lot, musically first of all, because her scores are always superbly written, but also emotionally; even if I haven't stayed much in Korea, since I've been in France for forty-five years, I feel something of my roots, of my childhood memories, of the popular sources of Korea that she allows herself today to integrate into her music: with her concerto for Sheng (mouth organ), for example, written in 2009 for the virtuoso Wu Wei, or Gougalon, which will be heard at Présences as well as Alaraph, Ritus des Herzschlags, the most Korean piece she has ever written, she warns, which will be given as a world premiere.

Now let's talk about the concert scheduled at the festival Présences where you play, as a duo, two new pieces, by Unsuk Chin and Héloïse Werner,
This is the first time that Gran Cadenza, for which the German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter had until now the exclusive right, will be heard in France. It is a relatively new piece for two violins (2018), formidable, as is everything the composer writes, which I will perform with one of my former DAI students, David Petrlik. As forHeloise Werner's new work, Close-ups, it will take us completely out of the mood. A text written by Heloise's sister is associated with the violin part. It is said and sung by the composer who also manipulates some accessories. As for me, I am sitting on a high chair and taking part in the staging elements. We are in the process of working out the final details.

What are your projects for the year 2023?
I don't have any creation to speak of in the coming months but I am participating in the recording of the complete Ligeti Concertos with the EIC under the direction of Pierre Bleuse. I make very few recordings. There was Boulez's Anthèmes II with Deutsche Grammophon in 2000 and I have only one monographic CD (Electron libre on Klarthe in 2021) that I agreed to make in order to honor and thank the composers who commissioned me and dedicated their scores to me; but I am wary of a disc that fixes an interpretation when I know I can go even further in my playing. At the same time, I have already played Ligeti's Violin Concerto a lot and I think that the time has come to record it. I am delighted with this initiative, which I share with my two colleagues, pianist Dimitri Vassilakis and cellist Renaud Desjardins.

Interview by Michèle Tosi

Photo © Franck Ferville
Photos © Le regard de James


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