Soohyun Yun, a Korean pianist in her mid-30s, started a teaching job at Kennesaw State University with an enviable reputation. Apparently her audition for the job, last spring, dazzled everyone who heard it. Word on the street was that Yun was something special, a musician of uncommon artistry and depth. A peek at her bio added to that impression, from her studies under imaginative pianist Ian Hobson to performances of contemporary music by the likes of French spectralist Tristan Murail, a sensuously brainy composer. (Her bio also describes her as “an educator, clinician and adjudicator,” the vocabulary of academics who harbor bureaucratic fantasies. We let that slide for the moment.)
Yun gave her debut faculty recital Tuesday night at KSU’s excellent Bailey Performance Center, playing a very difficult program that suggested an intellect at work: Schumann’s C Major Fantasie, Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata and Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit.” Music requiring great virtuosity, but always in the service of musical storytelling. No places to hide, or even coast.
She opened with the Schumann, a beefy three-movement work that pays a sort of homage to epic Beethoven while pushing outward against the classical sonata form, subverting tradition almost to the realm of stream-of-consciousness. The opening movement has been likened to a series of waves, where a peak of intensity arrives then loses momentum till the next surge takes over, and the process is repeated. From the opening it was clear that Yun is a musician who speaks in paragraphs and logical thought, downplaying showiness in favor of reasoned argument. There were many lovely and detailed moments, although when the music got especially tricky and multi-layered, her sound and power and lyricism declined noticeably. This Schumann seemed to push up against the very edge of her playing.
A memory slip at the start of Beethoven’s “Tempest” marred her performance, a pity because her interpretation eventually proved full of insight and charm. In the slow movement a soft cascade of notes was exquisite: slow and contemplative. It seemed like a spontaneous interpretation, giving this familiar music freshness.
In the explosive bits of the Allegretto finale, however, Yun barely managed more force than in the hushed Adagio. Throughout the recital, she generated volume and power through her hands and wrists alone; unlike many petite women pianists who use their forearms and shoulders for added weight, Yun’s body remained very still and never leaned into the keyboard for extra oomph. The instrument, too, seemed not to cooperate. I’m told that the big New York-made Steinway was purchased about the time the Bailey center opened, in 2008. Here it sounded sluggish, as if it hasn’t yet been broken in.
Thus things didn’t look promising for Yun’s “Gaspard de la Nuit,” which has earned a reputation as perhaps the most treacherously difficult piece in the repertoire. Once you’ve mastered what seems like tens of thousands of notes you’re not yet halfway there, because the infinite shadings and rivulets and opaque emotions, derived from fantastical poems by Aloysius Bertrand, create an unsolvable puzzle. Again, Yun’s playing was rather understated and quiet for the opening “Ondine” movement, but at last her talent — what people had been raving about — was apparent. She’s well schooled but not off-the-rack. There’s a person of substance and individuality behind the fingers. “Le gibet” was beautifully proportioned, reserved and private, which she somehow communicated was different from being introverted. Her “Scarbo” was nervous, angry, a little reckless, thrilling. Where had this impressive pianist been earlier in the night?