Interview with Pianist Esther Lee
We caught up with pianist Huijae (Esther) Lee, winner of the Annual 21st-Century Commission Competition and 2023 Krannert Debut Artist. On February 3, she will perform a recital at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts featuring the winning commission by composer Jung Hyun Lee. The 21st-Century Commission is an endowed award that honors the University of Illinois' talented composers and performers and promotes their musical ideas in concert. Read on to learn more about Lee and the commissioned work, "Emile," inspired by the ancient Bell of King Seongdoeok (성덕대왕신종).
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
KB: First, can you tell us a bit about yourself? How long have you been at the University of Illinois, and what drew you to study here?
EL: I am a third-year DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) student in piano performance and literature, and I have also been on the piano faculty at the Illinois Community Music Academy since the spring of 2022. I am originally from South Korea, and I came to the US in the fall of 2019 to attend Indiana University in Bloomington. After finishing my master’s degree, I came to the University of Illinois in the fall of 2021, so it has been roughly two and a half years.
What drew me to study here was the campus, great music buildings, and my teacher, Dr. Rochelle Sennet. When I was making my decision on schools, I was not able to visit this campus due to the pandemic. But I heard a lot of my musician friends saying the practice rooms are much better than many other schools. As a pianist, practice room quality is crucial, as I usually spend around 7–8 hours a day in a practice room working on various pieces. I have been able to access the practice rooms whenever I want without having to reserve a space, so I have been enjoying it very much. Also, I was living in Bloomington before coming here, which is a much smaller city than Champaign-Urbana. I thought experiencing life in a larger city would be great for me, as there would be much more fun to experience.
Last but not least, my current piano teacher, Dr. Sennet, was the biggest reason why I decided to come here. Even though I was only able to meet her through Zoom due to the pandemic, I could tell she would be a very supportive and passionate teacher. Also, I knew she had a strong interest in contemporary and underrepresented music, such as music by BIPOC and women artists. Since this repertoire was not my strong suit back then, I wanted to expand my horizons and musical repertoire by studying with her.
KB: Winning the 21st-Century Commission Competition comes on the heels of you winning the Krannert Debut Artist award last year. What was that experience like?
EL: Winning both the 21st-Century Commission Competition and the Krannert Debut Artist Award has been an incredible honor, especially as I know both are very competitive and only come around once a year. I put my everything into preparing for the competitions, but I also tried not to set my expectations too high. I think that was why I was so surprised and excited when I found out I had won. It was a thrilling experience, as I longed to perform at the Krannert Center ever since I came to this school. Whenever I attended performances there, I was amazed by the beautiful resonance of the Great Hall. I remember the dress rehearsal of my Krannert Debut Artist Recital so vividly; it felt surreal to be there, preparing to perform. I am even more grateful that I will get to perform there once again this February, especially since I know the Krannert audience is very welcoming and supportive of musicians.
I must mention that it was also a humbling experience for me since it did not come easy. Preparing for these competitions and the recital involved moments of self-doubt and the temptation to give up. However, these challenges contributed significantly to my growth as a musician, prompting me to focus more on conveying the essence of the music rather than outperforming others. Realizing this reminded me of my primary goal as a pianist: sharing “my” music with people. Even though the competitions were not easy to prepare for, it was the experience that I truly needed to grow as a performer.
KB: Can you tell us about the commissioned work by Jung Hyun Lee?
EL: The title of the commissioned work by Jung Hyun Lee is “Emile.” Jung Hyun took inspiration for this piece from a Korean national treasure, the Bell of King Seongdeok, commonly referred to as the “Emile Bell” in Korea. The bell is so named because the bell sounds like a vibrating voice slowly calling “Emile…,” which comes from the huge bell’s distinctive spectrum and beating effect among its many partials. The sound “Emile” has a special meaning behind it, as the word “Emile” translates to “mommy” in ancient Korean. As a result, numerous folktales about the bell exist, but they all have one thing in common: this unique sound is a child’s cry for their mother, who was sacrificed to be put into the melting bronze in the process of creating the bell, although this is a myth. These stories signify that the deep resonance of the huge bell brought out shared emotions among people in the era. It also represents a combination of illusionary traits of the sound and the cultural and social aspects of the epoch.
Apart from its compositional background, another interesting aspect of this piece is that it requires both piano and recorded/live electronics. During the performance, the live piano acoustics and the recorded deep bell sound will interplay with live electronics in real-time. Through this, the performance aims to stimulate the audience to imagine the haunting folktale associated with the bell. This work holds special significance for both Jung Hyun and me, as it reflects our shared Korean heritage. I am excited to share music based on my roots with the audience, and I feel truly lucky to be the first performer of this amazing piece by this wonderful composer and my dear friend, Jung Hyun.
KB: How did the idea come about to apply for this competition? Had you collaborated with Jung Hyun before?
EL: The idea to apply for this competition was initially suggested by Jung Hyun. Shortly after I was named the Krannert Debut Artist in 2023, she reached out to propose a collaboration. I was delighted and excited about this since we had only known each other from a class during my first semester at UIUC. When she proposed composing a piece inspired by the “Emile” bell, I was immediately intrigued. The concept of showcasing music rooted in my heritage resonated with me, and I knew of Jung Hyun’s exceptional talent as a composer. Jung Hyun’s vision for the piece, drawing inspiration from a traditional Korean bell, sparked my ideas for building a recital program for our competition proposal. This idea of blending elements from the past with contemporary creativity has inspired many composers. For instance, Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is based on a Baroque French keyboard suite by Couperin but is infused with Ravel’s unique harmonic style, which is distinct from traditional Baroque music. Thus, I thought the fusion of old and new should become the central theme of our proposal since it would connect the commissioned piece with the rest of our recital repertoire, emphasizing the compositional context of Jung Hyun’s work. While building our proposal with these ideas, I had so much fun imagining how this recital would be, and I am deeply grateful our first collaboration has been fruitful.
KB: What else will you be performing on the recital?
EL: Aside from the commissioned piece, I will be performing four additional pieces by J. S. Bach, Isang Yun, Ravel, and Amy Beach. The recital will open with the Siciliano, the second movement of Bach’s Flute Sonata No. 2 in E-flat Major, BWV 1031. Originally for flute and harpsichord, this movement was transcribed for solo piano by Wilhelm Kempff, a phenomenal German pianist. Its pastoral character and the piano’s imitation of flute sounds provide an inviting start to the recital. Next, we will explore Isang Yun’s Fünf Stücke für Klavier (Five Pieces for Piano). As a prominent Korean composer, Yun combines German expressionism and the twelve-tone technique with traditional Korean pentatonic scales and irregular rhythms, reminiscent of the Janggu, a traditional Korean percussion instrument. The brevity of this set of pieces, lasting only 5–6 minutes in total, adds to their intrigue. Before the intermission, we will delve into “La Valse” by Ravel. This piece exists in three versions by the composer: orchestral, two-piano, and solo piano. Although titled a waltz, it departs from the traditional ballroom dance and is instead characterized by an eerie, powerful, and vigorous atmosphere in its use of extreme dynamic ranges, glissandi, and endless chromatic passages.
The second half features Amy Beach’s Variations on Balkan Themes, Op. 60, a monumental set of variations. Uniquely, it has not one, but four themes based on Balkan folk songs. Furthermore, it has a substantial cadenza at the end that uses elements from its previous variations, which we do not usually see in a conventional variation form. Unfortunately, when she revised this piece later in her life, she got rid of the entire cadenza. This is a huge change, considering the cadenza itself is almost a third of the entire piece. However, I will be performing the original version, which includes this significant cadenza, for this recital. I am particularly excited about the pieces by Isang Yun and Amy Beach since they are not frequently performed. Isang Yun’s background resonates with me especially. After being forced to leave Korea due to the political situation of the 1950s, he gained German citizenship and never returned to Korea. However, he never stopped composing pieces with Korean traditional musical elements, longing for his country. Regardless of the controversial aspect of his political movements, his love and passion for the music of Korea is truly inspirational to me.
KB: Do you have any other performances coming up this semester or other projects you are excited about?
EL: I have two more DMA recitals scheduled for this semester, one in March and another in April. The April recital is particularly special to me, as I will perform two concerti: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488 and Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concert No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 16. This will be my first time performing two concerti in one recital, making it a unique and exhilarating experience for me. It is also meaningful in that it marks the final recital of my DMA program. Additionally, I have performances scheduled for June at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center in New York City, following my first-prize award in the Korean New York Daily Times Symphony Orchestra Competition last July. As a pianist, it has been a lifelong dream to perform in these prestigious venues. This will be my New York debut, and I am thrilled and grateful for these incredible performance opportunities.