NEW YORK — WHEN Korean-born violinist Kyung Wha Chung won the coveted Levintritt Prize in 1967, she couldn't have known that within three years she would be the toast of Europe, armed with a remarkable London Records contract, and one of the most sought-after soloists of the day. But in retrospect she can say, with a certain awe: ``My career was one miracle after another. For instance, I replaced somebody and became a hit, which made the next connection, in which somebody again [became] ill, and I replaced [that violinist] for the recording. And that started my recording career....''
Today, Miss Chung continues to add luster to her career as one of the leading American virtuosos. She has just signed a contract with EMI/Angel, which will doubtless give her a chance to re-record the works she set such high standards in on her London/Decca performances.
About re-recording the warhorses, she notes: ``I keep telling the recording companies: `Why do you want another recording of the Tchaikovsky. Why? What for?' But they seem to want it; so I say fine, if you want it you'll get it. So I go home and try to dig it out of myself.''
Chung comes from a highly musical family. One sister, Myung So, is a flutist. Her brother Myung Whun is a pianist and increasingly prominent conductor, and her sister Myung Wha is a cellist. Together they have long taken time to share musicmaking as the Chung Trio. Happily, the arrangement with EMI/Angel means they will soon be recording as a trio for the first time.
Those who have followed Chung's career since the early '70s will be aware of a self-imposed hiatus, from which she only recently emerged. The reason, not surprisingly, is that she married and became the proud mother of two strapping boys.
She is somewhat in awe of this change in her personal life. ``I must say, six or seven years ago, before I got married, I was determined to be single,'' she recalls. ``I was in my 30s then, and so I said - when I spoke to my family - `Look, I've thought about marriage. I realized it's not possible, because I'm committed to my profession, and it would be unfair for me to have a family, because I won't do them justice.'
``But I suppose that was because a right person didn't come along. And when I met my husband..., my gut feeling said, `This is it.' I had never had that feeling in my life; so I could make the commitment ... without any hesitation, any problem - which surprised me so much!''
If you've never seen Kyung Wha Chung perform, you might be surprised when this fragile woman, swathed in a striking gown, emerges gracefully from the wings, smiles sweetly to conductor and concertmaster, tucks the violin under her chin - and then begins to pour out her rich, vibrant, pliant tones. Earlier in her career, she was prone to much movement while playing; now the effect is one of great poise and serenity, of being lost in the world of the music at hand.
Watching her, I also find it hard to imagine that this exquisite woman, who seems so serious and ethereal on stage, is, in fact, a bundle of friendly energy. She also has a remarkable clarity of perspective. In the course of our hour-and-a-half together, she spoke provocatively on a number of issues ranging from her days at Juilliard and her revered teacher, Ivan Galamian, to motherhood and her career.
She is just as articulate on the disruptive imact of television on society as she is of what musicmaking means to her, of dealing with ideals and compromise in the pursuit of musical excellence, of the need for young musicians to have the time to daydream and fantasize.
For instance, about the career and how she has built it, she says: ``I used to think, `My goodness, if I don't do this there will be somebody else who will be taking my place.' And then I found out very quickly I can't be under that kind of neurotic pressure, because that means you are actually run by the career, and you are just driven. In the beginning of my career I decided the career is simply not going to control me.''
Chung is as determined about finding her ``right'' way through a piece of music as she is about being the right kind of mother. Discipline, she feels, is the source of all progress and useful activity. This is what she most admired about the late violin legend Jascha Heifetz. ``He's unique in the history of the violin, because of the consistency of the output, and the discipline of his playing is unique. He had never missed a day in his life playing scales, a minimum of half an hour, if not an hour to two hours.''
We somehow drift onto the subject of time and the inefficient way people use it today, and she cited Clara Schumann, about whom she had just been reading. Mrs. Schumann was able to compose, practice, concertize, write thousands of letters, and raise eight children. Why, Chung asks? ``Because she had a tremendous father who was such a disciplinarian.
``You know, nowadays, [if] a father is such a disciplinarian, oh, there will be psychiatric counseling. His child will be called abused, and everybody will say, `This career papa - he is ruining this life. Blah, blah, blah.' This affects the child.
``Oh gosh,'' she continues, ``everybody knows everything, interferes with everybody, and people don't have enough privacy, don't have enough time to breathe their own air. It's all so mixed up.
I asked her if she ever suffers from stage nerves.
``Who doesn't? I'll never forget the time when I had to walk on the stage to play the Walton concerto for the first time. I thought I would much rather not exist than go on, because it's a really difficult piece - one of the most difficult pieces I've played. And I thought, `I wish I could just erase this part of my life so I could just skip to the next moment and pretend this didn't exist.' They had to literally push me out. And the orchestra - the clarinet - started, I played my first note, and that was it: No problem.''
Is she temperamental or demanding in rehearsals, particularly when a conductor is inflexible to the point of compromising her artistic viewpoint?
``Up to now, there were times when a drastic decision [needed to be made]. If I made it emotionally - which can be related to vanity or ego - I always regretted it, tremendously. And I made sure I expressed my view afterwards that ... it was wrong.
``But when you know honestly that it's something that you cannot cope with, you've got to have the courage to simply and quietly say, `Stop!' But to know the difference is very difficult. You're dealing with different human beings who are just as complicated. You see, when you're younger you don't feel that; you can slice anybody to pieces. And this is wrong. ... I used to be so critical because everything has to be technical perfection, and anybody who didn't do that is not working enough, shouldn't be on the stage, etc., etc.
``Oh, I was so severe, like all the youngsters. But you go through that period, and then you get to a point of too much compromise. ... That's not good, either. You have to be strong and assertive and very convincing. But how do you find the balance? The most important thing is not how much work you do, but that the work you do has something so especially your own that it does communicate to the public as the most sincere, pure soul-searching. ... As a youngster. I wanted to be the most famous, the most glamorous. Actually that wasn't always my aim. My aim was that I wanted to stand in front of thousands of people and play my heart out to them, [with] them being with me and cheering and cheering. I've done that.
``I couldn't tell you in which direction I am going at the moment. Actually, when I cool-headedly look at my life and myself, I've got everything. But there is no such thing as being able to have everything. Something has to go, and in this sense, obviously I can't be a full-time career woman and have a family and be a wife.
``But a part-time career - would that give me enough energy to devote myself to bringing up two children, and so on?
``It's my choice [that] I am actually away from home. Nobody's telling me to go. Here I am, now, playing concerts, and I feel miserable. How do I cope with that? I have to make a decision. I can't complain to my husband, because my husband will say, `Then don't go away; stay home.' But on the other hand, if you feel the need to travel and play concerts, you must go! So what do I do? What should I do? Only time will tell.''