Do you have secret ingredients that set your favorite dish apart from your friend’s? Those secret ingredients are much like the unique stories that help explain how musicians develop into the artists they are. These special recipes for success set performers apart on stage, no matter how similar their diligence, hard work, and excellence may be. This is especially apparent in the two winners of this year’s International Bachauer Piano Competition, Yoonjung Han and Naomi Kudo, who both began playing piano early on, but with their own spices tossed in the mix.
For Yoonjung, it all began in her birthplace of Korea, at age 3, after one fateful afternoon nap. When she awoke, her mother had stepped out of the apartment, so she leaned out the sixth-floor window to look for her mother on the street. She slipped out of the window and was stuck outside holding on to the windowsill when the fifth-floor resident, a pastor’s wife, happened to look up from reading her Bible and helped Yoonjung back to safety. After the shock and minor injuries she sustained during the incident, Yoonjung took a year off from school. Feeling idle and bored, she asked for a piano. Since then, her family has also become religious, influenced by their neighbor.
Quickly excelling at the instrument, Yoonjung made her solo debut at 13, performing Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. At 15, she received the Most Promising Young Artist award from the Korean Minister of Culture after winning the grand prize in the Korea National Music Competition, and moved overseas to study with Victoria Mushkatkol in Juilliard’s Pre-College Division. Away from home before she had had a chance to learn how to cook, Yoonjung depended heavily on her rice cooker. Her father stayed with her for her first semester, but Yoonjung soon found herself independent and fending for herself in the big city. Although she had wanted to come to the States for the performance opportunities, she reflects on her difficult time: “I won’t do that to my daughter. I’ll keep her [at home] until she gets married.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree at the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with Eleanor Sokoloff, Yoonjung is now in her second year of the master’s degree program at Juilliard, studying with Robert McDonald. At 23, she has already performed as a soloist with the Buffalo Philharmonic, Fort Collins Symphony, Houston Symphony, Mississippi Symphony, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, and Milan’s I Pomeriggi Musicali, among others. She has won the gold medal at the Nena Wideman Piano Competition and the Kosciuszko Foundation Chopin Piano Competition, second prize at the Ettore Pozzoli International Piano Competition, and fifth prize at the Helsinki Maj Lind International Competition.
Yoonjung says she feels that she made a musical breakthrough with the competitions and festivals that she attended this past summer. She performed the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 22 in E Flat, K.482, at the Banff Center with the festival orchestra there, playing her own written eingangs and cadenzas, and won the gold medal at the World Piano Competition in Cincinnati. “I used to be obsessed with perfection,” she observes, “but learned that it’s more heart than fingers. It’s a talent and a joy that you can give to people, but you really have to love the music, not fame.” She says she finally feels emotionally free to connect with the audience.
Naomi Kudo also has a unique story. Born in Washington, D.C., she was introduced to the piano at age 4 by her Japanese-Korean parents, who were lovers of classical music though not musicians themselves. She never fought against practicing—but later, when she made violinist friends, she went through a phase of wishing that her parents had started her on the violin. For Naomi, the piano became a gradual attachment in life. Now a fourth-year bachelor’s degree student at Juilliard studying with Yoheved Kaplinsky, she says that being in New York made her realize how much she loved music and strengthened her resolve to pursue a musical career.
As part of her childhood was spent in Chicago, Naomi grew up listening to the Chicago Symphony, dreaming that perhaps one day she could be on that stage. After making her orchestral debut at 16—performing Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra—she got her chance with the Chicago Symphony, playing Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain in Orchestra Hall. Her experience playing with the C.S.O. spanned more than a week and included performing for kids ranging from grade school to high school. She recalls this as “scary and exciting,” and says it was a challenge to be alert and ready to play for them every morning at 9.
Naomi, who attended public school herself, recalls her high school years as “pretty rigorous academically, which was great—but it was also a struggle to balance the work load and music.” Now travel is a big part of her life; she has performed with the Warsaw Philharmonic and Reno Philharmonic, as well as the Ars Viva, Montgomery, Fort Collins, Northbrook, Everett, Oak Park, Southwest Michigan, and Fukui orchestras. Without as much time now for the sports she enjoys (her childhood included ice skating and swimming lessons), she follows them on TV in her free time—and of course, this past summer’s Olympic games were a treat. She admires Olympic athletes, finding their training more daunting than her own. “It’s fun to watch the athletes because they are so charismatic,” she says. “I think about how much work they go through, because it is so incredible for just those 10 seconds.”
Moving back and forth between Japan and Chicago as she grew up, Naomi was able to draw from the classical music scenes of both places. Her career has been blossoming as she receives numerous awards and wins various competitions; she was recently named a 2008 Gilmore Young Artist, has received the Chopin Prize, and wins the Bachauer competition for the second consecutive year. This season, she is looking forward to performing in Poland and Japan, and also hopes to share her love for music through community work, inspired by performing on one of violinist Midori’s outreach concerts at the Isabella Residence in Upper Manhattan.
Last April, Naomi had the privilege of meeting and chatting with Mitsuko Uchida, one of her favorite pianists, at a private dinner. Only a few weeks later, Naomi performed a movement of the Brahms F-Minor Piano Quintet at Juilliard’s 2008 commencement—after only one rehearsal, with four string players she had met just three days before. An impressed Uchida, one of the honorary doctorate recipients, was seated nearby onstage and complimented her afterward. It was a special experience, Naomi said—foreshadowing both the pressures and the rewards of professional life.