For most performers, exquisite good looks would be considered a plus. But for Kyung-Wha Chung, 34, one of the very few world-class female violinists, beauty threatened to get in the way. “I realized early,” she says, “that if I walked onstage in a miniskirt nobody would take me seriously as a musician. So I put on a tough facade onstage. I felt it was the only way to get the audience to pay attention.” The solemnity of her stance, coupled with the remarkable swell of sound from the violin bowed by this tiny (5’3″, 108 pounds) person, does indeed attract attention, to the tune of about 100 concerts and an estimated $250,000 a year.
Most of Chung’s major engagements are in Europe, which is the main reason she is less well-known than her colleague Itzhak Perlman. They are considered to be virtuosos of roughly equal stature, Perlman distinguished for his glowing, rounded tones, Chung for her fire-and-ice brilliance. Among her fans are conductor André Previn (“miraculous”), Chicago Symphony artistic administrator Peter Jonas (“first class”) and pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim. In the U.S. she sells more violin records for London Records than any other fiddler. Her 13th record, of the famous Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos, is due in January.
Yet for Kyung-Wha the príce of accomplishment has been heavy. She didn’t have a date until she was 19, and only recently bought her own home, in London, where she hopes to “start socializing, cooking and having people over. I’d like to entertain a circle of friends, only I haven’t cultivated a circle of friends yet.”
Chung was a prodigy as a toddler, the middle child in a musical tribe of seven, all born in Seoul, Korea. Their father was a prominent exporter, their mother an amateur pianist and classical guitarist. The Korean War, which at one point forced the family to evacuate to Pusan, prompted the Chungs to think of music lessons as a way to give their brood a marketable skill, a portable career. In all, the seven Chung children had 20 music and language tutors. Kyung-Wha started piano at 4½ and played brilliantly by ear, but, she confides, “I hated it.” Then, at 7, she discovered the violin. “I just wanted so badly to play it well,” she recalls. “I just had this beautiful singing sound in my head, which I desperately wanted to achieve. The violin felt totally natural for me.” As children, the seven Chungs played chamber music together (four have gone on to careers in music). Kyung-Wha herself played with the Korean National Symphony Orchestra and the Seoul Philharmonic and was famous in her homeland by the age of 8.
After the war, the Chungs began to depart Korea in pairs. Kyung-Wha left for New York at 13 with her closest sister, feeling “as if I was going to paradise.” Although she was awarded a scholarship to Juilliard and studied with the late violin maestro Ivan Galamian, heaven had to wait. Sympathizes her sister Myung-So, a flutist who went on to study at Yale: “Kyung-Wha went from being a well-known violinist in Korea to six years of not being given a chance.” Although Galamian adored her, she says, she always felt “that he didn’t trust me. One day I mentioned that and he said to me, ‘Girls! You are not going to get married, are you?’ ” Galamian had lost too many female students to marriage, and Kyung-Wha reassured him she would not. Still, as the most promising female in a lot that included Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman, she was not encouraged to launch an early career.
“By 18, I was depressed,” Kyung-Wha confesses. “My whole life was apartment to school, school to apartment, practice, practice, practice.” When she admitted she was on the verge of quitting to her parents, who had moved to Seattle, the family called an emergency meeting. “Other violinists had expert advisers,” sister Myung-So explains. “Kyung-Wha had only us.” She decided that she should send in an entry to the prestigious Edgar M. Leventritt competition at Carnegie Hall in 1967, a major career-launching contest.
At the six-day competition, Kyung-Wha so won the hearts of the judges that they awarded her first prize with Pinchas Zukerman. Her major professional breakthrough came three years later when on a day’s notice she leaped in to sub for an ailing soloist with the London Symphony Orchestra. She was a wild success. One critic proclaimed her as great as Jascha Heifetz or David Oïstrakh. André Previn became her champion. Within three days she had 30 concerts scheduled throughout Britain, and by the next year, at 23, she was recognized as one of the great violinists of her age.
Although her name was once linked with André Previn’s (a connection she denies) and she was romantically involved with Montreal Symphony conductor Charles Dutoit, Kyung-Wha remains unmarried. “For me to play harmoniously on the violin takes one,” she explains. “But in order to stay in harmony with another person is very difficult. So far every man has fallen out of tune.” Those who know her sense a mellowing these days. She is setting aside five weeks of each summer to teach violin to a dozen students at the Chung family’s Monticello School of Music in Rock Hill, N.Y., and she hints at being open to adventure, having kept her promise to her former teacher, Ivan Galamian. Says she, “I think perhaps even he would approve of my dating now.”