We speak to Kyung Wha Chung ahead of the release of her new album out on Warner Classics this October and her forthcoming tour to China.
‘Whether you work in art, science or maths, there is a certain point where you must go beyond simply having talent, to having tremendous imagination’
Kyung Wha Chung is a tough nut to crack: she’s intriguing, fascinating and just a little bit frightening as she alternates from being as wily as a puma or as playful as kitten. Chung’s as sharp, honest and brutal with herself as she is with everyone else. What’s more, she knows it. In a world where so many stars sound the same, you need artists like Chung to sing and shout from the parapet. I like her. It’s this mix that makes for an intoxicating player and personality.
Take the infamous comments she made at Royal Festival Hall in 2014: ‘Renowned violinist berates coughing child’ blasted the BBC News headlines after Chung suggested to a parent from the stage that the child should ‘come back when she’s older’ — voooom an online debate raged instantly, fuelled by critics, the public and columnists. ‘I have always welcomed children to my concerts,’ the violinist wrote on The Guardian’s classical blog. Storm in a teacup over.
During our phone interview I tentatively raise the issue with Chung – was she shocked by the furore?
Chung is laughing. Good. This means we are on safe ground. It’s mid-July and she’s at her hotel room in Verbier, ahead of the festival’s opening concert with Charles Dutoit and the young Verbier Festival Orchestra.
‘You know,’ she says chattily, ‘if I think back to how I have approached my career over the past 50 years, I am still the same. When I was young, I was extremely passionate, sensitive and demanding: whether with a new or an old maestro, I went for what I wanted. I don’t hold back when there is something to say.
‘I have never hesitated to express myself, and this has been shocking for a lot of people. When I look back, I can see the great musician I was. As a young musician, I very much wanted to have the gift that others recognised in me, and, of course, they saw my gift and because of this they treated me in a particular way.’
– I think this is Chung for saying she knows she can be…(it’s hard to find the politically correct word: ‘a madam’ is too sexist for 2016, and ‘diva’ doesn’t quite represent her mischievousness) ‘challenging’, but that makes her sound boring and Kyung Wha Chung is anything but boring. Eccentric? Maybe.
Prior to the Royal Festival Hall incident she had been the darling of the media. Didn’t she find the resultant hoo-hah a little unfair?
‘No, no, no, no,’ she says adamantly. (I have to admit, I’m surprised by her reaction, some comments were cruel, I’d be out for revenge). ‘I don’t think of it in terms of fair or unfair, they reacted in their way at that time.’
The violinist accepts the part she played in the drama. ‘One thing I wasn’t aware of was how the public had changed. My recollection of performing in England was that the audience had been fantastically quiet, there was no problem at all when I had previously played in London. Then I was told afterwards that this is a present day phenomenon, everywhere at concerts people do cough.’
The debate certainly affected my own attitude towards attending concerts: because of Chung’s comment I missed Yo-Yo Ma at Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, instead I retreated to my dull hotel room with an annoying cold. ‘Go to the concert, it’ll be fine,’ my companion had urged. ‘No, it’s not fine,’ I retorted – because, like Chung, I too believe that during a live performance the artist has only a finite number of moments to make a defining difference. More importantly, the public pays a lot for concert tickets. Every single person, including the artist, deserves to participate undisturbed. Unless it is a relaxed performance, when different rules apply.
Chung’s opinion matters because she is an icon. She’s fabulously self-assured, there’s a devilishness that accompanies her pride, and she’s an incredible role model for all – and yes, women in particular. I’m in awe of the ease with which she can be self-possessed, fun, and gracious all at the same time.
Chung sounds much more at peace than when I interviewed her in 2014, which was before the whole controversy occurred. Naturally, there is a brusqueness to her chatter, but there is also a great deal of tenderness and joviality too. She’s happier, that’s for sure.
World tour dates including China, Tokyo and the US are available to view online.