[Scene Magazine] On the Musical Launching Pad for International Flights
Young Canadian Timothy Chooi Takes On the Bruch Violin Concerto with the Santa Barbara Symphony in His U.S. Orchestra Debut
By Josef Woodard, News-Press Correspondent
From an overview perspective, the current Santa Barbara Symphony season has paid attention to the importance of diverse programming. Just this year, for instance, there was the 200th birthday tribute to Verdi in January's operatic program — and then a visit by a well-established and globally famous soloist, celebrated pianist Hél'ne Grimaud in February.
This weekend's symphony program, by contrast, goes the way of championing fresh, young talent in the form of the precociously talented violinist Timothy Chooi. Nineteen years old and still attending Curtis Institute, he is making his U.S. debut in Santa Barbara. That's not to say the not-yet-twenty-something violinist hasn't already made strong inroads and garnered much acclaim, but much of it has been in his native Canada, where he has soloed with the Toronto Symphony, L'Orchestre de Montreal, the Newfoundland Symphony, and others. He also made his Carnegie Hall debut last spring, as part of winning Vadim Repin's Masterclass Scholarship award. He will be performing the ever-popular Bruch Violin Concerto, as part of a program that also includes Rossini's "William Tell Overture," Dirk Brossé's "Millennium Overture," Prokofiev's "Classical Symphony" and Grieg's "Peer Gynt Suite."
Mr. Chooi was on the phone from his current home in Philadelphia, also home to Curtis, to talk about his very promising, unfolding career officially expanding into the U.S. landscape this weekend at The Granada.
News-Press: You grew up in Victoria, Canada, a nation known for its cultural strengths, and its support system for the arts. Do you think that coming up in that environment helped you to thrive as a younger musician?
Timothy Chooi: Yes, Canada is a very supportive country for its people, especially for the arts. I've gotten a lot of recognition from the Canadian government, and sponsorship from them. For example, the instrument that I use right now, Guarneri del Ges? (18th century and worth $5 million), is owned by the government. They hold an audition every three years, only for Canadian citizens, to play on them. Also, there are many scholarships and prizes and awards for Canadian artists. It is really special.
NP: How do you like this special instrument? Has it changed your musical approach and view of playing in a way?
TC: Yes. This instrument is really one of the top instruments that there are in the violin world. All the legendary violinists that we look up to, have usually played either a Stradivarius or a Guarneri Ges?. I got it when I was 18 and to have that at that young age, for me, was a real honor.
Playing on it is something special because it's such a unique sound. A lot of instruments have maybe one special quality, especially modern instruments, but this one has so many special qualities to it that I keep discovering. In a way, it has helped me. It taught me a lot of different sounds and techniques about how to treat an instrument. Because this instrument is so capable of changing, I've been able to learn about different styles of sound and colors of sound.
NP: And at some point, you will pass it on to the next temporary owner? Is that the way it works?
TC: I can audition up to four times. Each time is a three-year period, so possibly it could be up to 12 years. I've done it only once so far. I hope I don't have to give it up too early (laughs). Maybe when I'm 30, I'll give it up.
NP: This will be your first time performing in the Santa Barbara area. You will be performing the Bruch Violin Concerto. Is this a piece you have a special connection or appreciation for?
TC: Yeah. I learned the Bruch Violin Concerto when I was nine years old, and I played it when I was 10. It was my first major concerto that I learned, and it's really popular. I always loved it. I performed it with my local orchestra in Victoria, and performed it a couple of additional times, but then I never touched it again until just the beginning of last year at age 19. I stopped learning it when I was 10 and picked it up again at 19.
It has been a real joy to learn it again, because throughout those nine years, I have heard it so many times that I have been able to almost separate between what is traditionally done and what is done in the music, or what the composer wrote. At this point, I'm able to combine the two things and find my interpretation of it, which is really exciting.
NP: At this point, you're more emotionally and intellectually mature. Can you bring more of yourself to the score? Is that part of the process?
TC: Yeah, for sure. As I grow older, I think I learn different sounds and maybe it's not that much different, but I am able to use the sounds in the way I plan to use them in the piece. In a way, it has a more emotional effect, I think. When I re-learned it, it was more personal to me because I'm able to express the music in a deeper way.
NP: You played this piece at age 10. When did you know you wanted to make music your calling, and livelihood?
TC: I started playing the violin when I was three, but I've been around music ever since I was born. My brother plays the violin, as well, and he is five years older than me. So since I was born, I was hearing the violin and was just surrounded by music.
I continued playing from three on, just for fun, as something to do and as a hobby. It was probably around age 14 when I decided it was something that I couldn't live without and couldn't imagine my life being another way. I was probably 14 when I discovered that.
As I went into high school, it was more difficult because you're growing up and also, there are a lot of things that are happening in high school. You're trying to focus on your studies, academically, and trying to juggle that with music, which is also getting more serious as well. So that was quite difficult. I don't think anybody can do two things well at once. I had to miss some classes, and catch up. It was a real juggle. But I managed to get through, and I passed that stage.
NP: And then once you passed that stage, you were more fully entrenched in music and went to Curtis, right?
TC: Yes. I auditioned for Curtis when I was 15, and I entered the school year when I had just turned 16. So that was a real big change for me. I grew up in a very small city, Victoria, with only a population of about 70,000 people. But Philadelphia is quite a big city. I had never experienced such busyness.
The school is completely immersed in music. Everything we do is around music, whereas in high school, music was something that I did alone. So, I was surrounded by a very musical atmosphere. I was really inspired because everybody is good at my school. Some of them came at an earlier age than I did, and some of them are performing everywhere, already. I was still in high school when I first came to Curtis.
NP: Was classical music always your main interest, or were you eclectic in your listening tastes?
TC: For me, I mostly focused on classical music, but I didn't when I was younger. I did some country fiddling because it was just fun. But I haven't done it for years. My iPod is mostly all classical music. I just really love it.
NP: And do you love the different periods and styles within the range of classical music?
TC: Yeah, I love all the genres of classical music. For some reason, I really like the early 20th century music, neo-classicism like Prokofiev, Stravinsky and neo-romantic music, like Shostakovich. I think a lot of people my age like this music. At that time, it was very different and almost rebellious against the traditional music of the 19th century. But I also love all the romantic pieces and Baroque.
NP: Do you ideally like the concept of balancing concerto work with recital and other kinds of music making?
TC: Yes. I enjoy all types of repertoire. At this stage of my life, I play everything. But I really enjoy playing with orchestras because it's a combination of all the instruments.
NP: That must an exciting feeling, playing before an orchestra.
TC: It is. Everybody gets to say something. I'm lucky to be the soloist because you get to, in a way, interact with everything and all the instruments.
NP: You have a fairly rich YouTube page. For one, I was impressed with your dazzling Paganini clip. For you, at your age and in your generational place, it must be just a natural process to utilize the Internet and make that part of our musical identity. Is that true from your perspective?
TC: Yeah. I started my YouTube channel in 2010 when I first came to Curtis. At first, I made it because I have a lot of supporters and family and teachers who are still in Canada, and some of my family members are not even in North America. They wanted to watch me play, so I put some videos on the YouTube channel.
Eventually, some other people found it and they watched it, and I got some comments, which was nice. And if a conductor wants to watch me play, or if they ask me, "How are you doing?" I send them my YouTube link. It has been really convenient and a really fast way to share my music.
NP: A larger question is: Do you think this is something that classical music generally needs to move toward, in terms of catching up with technology and what it can offer?
TC: That's a hard question. Part of me says, "yes" and part of me says, "no." The "yes" part is because there are a lot of places where going to a classical music concert is hard to do, so the reason I would say "no" is because I want people to have the opportunity to go to a classical music concert, which is a really unique experience. There is just the atmosphere of going to a concert, waiting for the music to start, hearing the actual acoustics of the hall, which is something really special and can't be replaced. Everybody is all dressed up. It's one package. I would really miss it if that would go away.
But I think social media has been a really good way to share. What classical music is going through right now is perfect. I think it's at a good place.
NP: Despite the negative reports of the state of classical music, I see a quite healthy audience and situation, and passion for the music. What is your feeling?
TC: Especially outside of North America, it's really growing. I was in South America two years ago, and I played a concert there in a local gym. It was for the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, which traveled around Chile. I played there and it seats around 3,000 people for fire regulations, but they didn't care about that, and 5,000 people showed up. They were mostly younger people.
I realized that classical music was growing there, and elsewhere, which I'm happy to see.
NP: You are young and at the starting gate of your musical career. Do have any sort of a grand idea or vision of how you would like your musical life to work?
TC: Yes. Ideally, I would love to continue what I'm doing, and have more of what I'm doing, which is performing around the world. I know that's a very big dream to have, but I'm working toward it. I really enjoy traveling to various places, not only for myself, but also to share music that I've been able to learn from, to share the knowledge that I've been able to learn here at Curtis and overall with my musical training.
I also would like, eventually, to teach — maybe not soon, but at some point.