June 26, 2019

French Cello Concertos and More: A Conversation with Hee-Young Lim

One of the label Sony Classical’s more recent signings, cellist Hee-Youg Lim already has quite a storied and impressive musical history. Hee-Young is one of the first female Asian cellists ever to lead a section in a major European orchestra, her education including graduating the New England Conservatory, and studying with Muller at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris where she graduated with “Highest Distinction.” She also is a graduate of Hochschule für Musik “Franz Liszt” Weimar, where she earned her Konzertexamen degree “mit auszeichnung” (summa cum laude).

Hee-Young has performed with the Deutsche Berlin Chamber Orchestra, the Budapest Radio Philharmonic, the Warsaw National Philharmonic, the Jenaer Philharmonie, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the KBS Symphony Orchestra, the Seoul Symphony Orchestra, and the Baden-Baden Philharmonie. She also was appointed by Yannick Nézet-Séguin as the principal solo cellist of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Being the first Korean professor ever appointed, Hee-Young was invited to join the faculty of the Beijing Central Conservatory in 2018.

The following is my interview with the very accomplished and internationally respected Asian cellist regarding her debut album French Cello Concertos (recorded at Abbey Road Studios) and more.

Mike Ragogna: Hee-Young, your new album French Cello Concertos includes compositions by Saint-Saëns, Lalo, Milhaud, Offenbach, and Massenet. Why did you choose material written by these particular composers? 

Hee-Young Lim: This is my very first album, so I wanted the repertoire to be something that meant a lot to me, and said something about my story. I have always felt very close to French music, French composers, French culture and even the French language.

These particular masterworks are absolutely gorgeous. I enjoy that this album features a variety of well known, lesser known, and short pieces and concertos from different periods so that people can enjoy a large range of cello repertoire. 

MR: Who is your all-time favorite composer?

HYL: My philosophy is that my favorite composer is always the one I’m playing at the moment. I try not to have one because having a favorite composer might somehow block my mind to a specific one.

MR: What are you experiencing internally or emotionally when you perform?

HYL: Playing the cello is like meditation to me. When I perform, everything is motionless, time has stopped. It becomes sort of a mirror and helps me see within myself.

MR: Are there any compositions on French Cello Concertos that you feel bring out your self-expression and passion for the music more than some of the others? Which songs are they and can you elaborate?

HYL: These are all tremendous works, and to me, the key to performing them is finding that sense of the French spirit, of French culture and history and language in the notes. Each work expresses this idea of French culture and history in a different way.

For example, “Cello Concerto No.1” by Saint-Saëns conveys so many things in one, 17-minute breath in three movements. You have a wild, elemental first movement, and then, in the second, Saint-Saëns presents the minuet form. It’s very elegant. The third movement almost holds a sense of melancholy. You have to hint at the chasms of emotion but you don’t show it.

Lalo’s “Cello Concerto” is very Spanish and dramatic to me, but filtered through a French composer. The first theme recalls to me soldiers journeying to the mountains for a fight until the singing quality of the second theme seduces them away, yet eventually, all return to the path to war. 

The “Cello Concerto No.1” of Darius Milhaud has so many layers. To me, it recalls Paris in the 1920s and ’30s, with jazz in the air and people meeting in the streets. But when the second movement goes dark and haunting, it is almost like the composer is trying to shake off the memories of WWI.

MR: Were any of these composers very important to you or particularly influential as you were growing up, studying your instrument? Which compositions have you played the most over the years?

The Saint-Saëns was the first concerto I ever learned, when I was 11, and it is the Saint-Saëns and also Lalo that particularly recall my time being immersed in the French tradition while studying with Philippe Muller at Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris.

Phillippe Muller has been a very important person to me. I first met him in Seoul when I was 12, and then I studied with him for many years in school. It was he who suggested I record the Milhaud. We actually just performed together for the first time this month in Beijing, and made a recording with the same program. It was a really wonderful experience.

Otherwise, the six Bach Suites have been an essential part of my life as a cellist while I most often perform the Dvorak “Cello Concerto” and works by Haydn with orchestras.

MR: Can you tell us a little more about your education and background in music, such as graduating with “Highest Distinction,” and being one of the first female Asian cellists to lead a section in a major European orchestra?

HYL: I have been very fortunate to have studied with great teachers from different schools. They have all influenced me to become the musician I am today. My teacher, Philippe Muller, represents the French cello school, he is the successor of the legendary cellist André Navarra. At the New England Conservatory, I was taught by Laurence Lesser, who studied with Gregor Piatigorsky, and in Germany with Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt. Most recently,I have worked with Yannick Nézet-Séguin through my role as Principal Solo Cellist at the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. I have tremendous admiration for him and the whole experience has been eye-opening.

MR: How did performing and recording with the London Symphony Orchestra differ from other orchestras with whom you’ve played? Were there any challenges? Were you a little intimidated at first and in your opinion, did the experience make you a better player in certain ways?

HYL: The recording session with such a renowned orchestra for my first album was a great challenge. It was an incredible experience. We were recording at Abbey Road Studios in Westminster, London and through this recording, I had the pleasure of playing with the London Symphony Orchestra for the first time. I worked very hard to prepare because there is only so much time when you are recording to get it right! I learned a lot from the process and this recording gave me a great deal of thought about interpretation, my playing, and many other things. 

MR: You are the first Korean professor ever appointed to Beijing Central Conservatory. How has this changed your life and, I know you’re modest, but objectively, what do you think you’ve contributed to the conservatory?

HYL: There are many wonderful colleagues at my conservatory! I’m thrilled to help students and guide them. I’ve really come to appreciate the responsibility being a professor. I’m trying to foster creativity in their playing, in addition to their mastery of the technical elements of cello. I hope they will be able to have a better sense and understanding of music and become a thorough musician while studying with me.   

MR: This probably isn’t an easy question, but why did you choose to master the cello as opposed to any other stringed instruments? 

HYL: In fact, I have never learned any other stringed instruments other than a cello! I was given a cello from my mom’s friend when I was learning the piano, which was my first musical instrument. But I fell in love with cello immediately when I started playing it, so cello eventually became “my” instrument!

MR: With your very impressive history, is there any advice or anything you can share with aspiring classical artists and cellists?

HYL: I know how hard it is to distinguish yourself in this competitive music world. I think as long as we have positive will, we will make it one day 🙂  

MR: Thank you, Hee-Young. So what are your future plans?

HYL: I’m expanding my repertoire and I’m working on several collaborations with contemporary composers. I plan to add more recordings to my discography. In addition to my work as a professor, I will continue to offer masterclasses and solo concerts worldwide. I am writing some cello method books and my own edition of the Bach suites will be published. My intention is to have a long and fruitful career. I’ve barely started! 

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