On This Day
2 May: Yeol Eum Son Was Born

Pianist Yeol Eum Son, born on 2 May 1986 in Wonju, South Korea, has been lauded for her breathtaking technical control and her profound empathy for the emotional temper of the works within her strikingly wide repertoire.

Yeol Eum Son

Yeol Eum Son

A prize-winner at some of the most prestigious competitions, Son is driven by a natural curiosity to explore a multitude of genres and styles and a desire to reveal what she describes as the “pure essence” of everything she performs.

Yeol Eum Son Performs Bach/Petri: “Sheep May Safely Graze”

As Son explained in an interview, she was “just a normal kid, but development started early.” She was able to read and write at the age of two, and her mother, a worship leader in the local church, had a large collection of opera and lieder recordings. Initially, Son was drawn to the violin, but she started playing the piano in earnest around the age of three and a half. Her mother loved music, but there was never any pressure to become a professional musician.

The Beginning of Her Piano Journey

Cheng-Zong Yin

Cheng-Zong Yin

Son remembers that when she started playing the piano, all of South Korea was very much into classical music. “Half of my class, I would say 20 kids, were playing piano. It was just a regular public school in South Korea, but it was the most natural thing to play at least one instrument. But then I got to love music very, very much. I loved listening to recordings and going to concerts, so it was the most natural thing to do.”

Yeol Eum Son Performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor, Op. 21

Her progress was remarkable, and by the age of eight, she was first performing with an orchestra at the Kumho Prodigy Concert Series. At the suggestion of her teacher, she performed the E-flat Concerto K. 482 by Mozart, even though “I hardly knew what the piece meant!” She quickly learned another Mozart concerto, K. 467 for a summer music camp in Boston, established by the Chinese/Taiwanese community. With her talents clearly recognised, Son continued her lessons with Cheng-Zong Yin, one of China’s most prominent pianists.

Winning the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition

Yin won the top prize at the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, and in 1980, he was listed as one of the four most important Chinese artists. For Son, it was soon time to leave her family and home city behind and engage in a four-year course of undergraduate study at the Korean National University of Arts in Seoul. Aged 15, Son continued her musical education with the eminent Korean pedagogue, Daejin Kim.

Yeol Eum Son Performs Kapustin’s Variations, Op. 41

Studying Under Daejin Kim

Kim is an alumnus of the Juilliard School, who won the first prize in the 6th Robert Casadesus International Piano Competition. “The whole system of teaching and learning music in Korea is very new,” explained Son. “It goes back only two or three generations, and South Korea had very few pioneers, but I think I was in the first generation of Korean musicians with an international career to come out of a local school.”

Daejin Kim

Daejin Kim

Son subsequently was among the prize winners at the International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians and she won the Oberlin International Piano Competition two years later. The decisive moment in her career took place, however, when she moved from Seoul to Hannover for postgraduate study with Arie Vardi, the Israeli pedagogue whom she still refers to as “my teacher.”

Yeol Eum Son Performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 “Andante”

Apprenticeship With Arie Vardi

Arie Vardi

Arie Vardi

According to Son, her apprenticeship with Vardi was the “biggest influence in my musical life so far. He is the most important teacher, and I have learned so much from him. In fact, I consider him a friend, and I play for him and ask him for advice about what pieces I should play and so on.” Vardi, according to Son, “is one of the last generations of teachers who is a walking encyclopaedia.” Under Vardi’s guidance, Son reconsidered every aspect of her technique, “even the simplest things like phrasing or pedalling or the left hand, or the height of the bench.” Vardi became her mentor, teacher, and friend.

The Fulfillment of a Childhood Dream

Yeol Eum Son

Yeol Eum Son

Son won second place to Daniil Trifonov at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in 2011. It was, for Son, “the fulfillment of a childhood dream.” She explains, “when I was in Korea, all I was told about was competition. We didn’t learn about becoming musicians other than to be competition winners. It was such an unnatural approach.” As she stated in an interview, “the competition circuit wasn’t such a bad thing, because I couldn’t care less about the winning part. I was doing it to get known.” Son got the most enjoyment from listening to the other candidates, which helped her own playing process.

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Yeol Eum Son Performs Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2

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