Yeoman Interview – Joo Yeon Sir

Korean-born British violinist Joo Yeon Sir has performed at world-class venues and acquired a string of coveted prizes, including The Arts Club–Sir Karl Jenkins Classical Music Award. Described by The Strad as ‘exuberant, feline and seductive, rattling off the fiendish cadenza with bravura and oodles of personality’ for a Wigmore Hall recital, Joo Yeon is also a composer and former BBC/Guardian Young Composer of the Year winner.

What inspired you to learn the violin?
I am from a very musical family and music has been a big part of my life from the very beginning. I remember admiring my mother’s hands as she played the piano with me on her lap (she is an amateur pianist), so it seemed entirely natural to be in front of the piano. I was mesmerised by the different types of sounds instruments could make and shortly after seeing a violinist on a TV programme (and being captivated by the sound) and realising that a violin is smaller than a piano and rather more portable, I plucked up the courage to ask for a violin.
My family moved to London in 2000 and I was invited to study at Purcell School where I had the best environment I could have asked for. I was introduced to chamber music, orchestras and composing from an early age and I was very happy to be surrounded by friends of my age who also loved music. It was when I met my current teacher Dr Felix Andrievsky in 2004 that I realised I wanted to be a performer. He is a constant inspiration to me, a true mentor who has overseen my development over a decade, and like a long-lost Russian grandpa that I never had. I owe everything I know about music and life to him and thank him sincerely for bearing with me all this time and for many years to come.

What is an average day in the life of Joo Yeon? Do you have a routine?
I don’t have a routine but I do like to combine the day with some personal practice, rehearsals, planning, a bit of admin, talking to family and friends, and also resting. On a sunny day, I like to take a short jog in Hyde Park – it makes me very happy to see the sun when it is there (which is rare, especially in autumn and winter). I also enjoy looking aimlessly at the leaves on the trees and at the Serpentine – this seems to help me clear my head. When I have spare time, I also like to wander around art galleries and museums as different art forms and cultures inspire me. I also like watching video clips on YouTube in Korean, which is my mother tongue, on anything from food or cooking to popular culture.

You’re a performer and a composer, but which do you prefer?
I am a performer inside and out. I love how you can go on a journey together with people who are all strangers at the beginning of the concert and during the concert you begin to connect with them without words and become friends. You begin to understand and respond to one another. I cherish the special bond with fellow musicians and also between audience and stage, especially the sound of that particular silence you can get in a performance, which I like to interpret as the trust you gain from the audience.
I believe as Benjamin Britten did that it is important that we are both performers and composers. Composing helps me to develop as an artist on stage – it gives me a better understanding of what the composers try to convey through their notations. I don’t call myself a composer yet (I am not sure if I ever will be confident enough to), but I do love the process of composing and exploring my ideas. I also enjoy collaborating with composers and find the process absolutely fascinating.

Do you get nervous when performing? If so, how do you combat stage fright?
I get positively excited about going on stage and having an audience that wants to listen to me. My teacher has always advised me never to have even a single bad performance and to avoid that the only answer is to be prepared as much as possible each time before going on stage and to be spontaneous and enjoy the moment.
As a composer, I find it terrifying to watch performances of my own work, which is how I felt when my first orchestral piece was premiered at Queen Elizabeth Hall by the Purcell School Symphony Orchestra back in 2008. It was a wonderful experience to collaborate with such a big ensemble and a big learning curve, but I do not really remember much other than my own heart thumping away during the performance. I must have been just praying in my seat that the audience will accept and understand my musical ideas.

You have a Matteo Goffriller violin. How did you get it and how long have you played it?
I am very fortunate to be playing on the beautiful Matteo Goffriller violin provided by the very generous Georg von Opel, who is a great admirer of music and has been supporting me since 2008. I had been teaching the violin to his daughters for a while, and he kindly offered to sponsor a violin after hearing me at numerous concerts. His help came at a crucial time when I was really developing as an artist during my studies at RCM and I am very grateful to him for making it possible.

Tell me about your collaboration with the talented guitarist Laura Snowden.
Laura and I came together through a love of composing and food. She and I met while living together and over dinner tables. We would excitedly discuss everything from composing, performing, all things related to music and, of course, food. One day, I discovered she had written a piece for violin and guitar, and when I heard a performance of that work, I knew that I wanted to be involved in her music.
As there are not many works written for this ensemble, we have been experimenting with transcriptions (some more conventional than others), writing our own works, giving workshops at the RCM Junior Department Composition Faculty, performing in concerts at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, care homes, hospitals, and involved with WCOM’s Outreach programme . Laura is one of my closest friends whose playing I also adore and I find it such a wonderful experience to be in a duo with someone as special as her and who also shares the same passion for music.

You’ve won lots of awards but which one has had the most impact on your career?
Awards from the Tillett Trust and Making Music have given me performance opportunities, which have been the foundation for me as an artist. The Arts Club – Sir Karl Jenkins Classical Music Award 2014 led to the opportunity to work with Sir Karl Jenkins and perform with him and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Royal Albert Hall in October 2015, Royal Festival Hall and Wales Millennium Centre in 2016. He has been incredibly supportive of my professional career and Classic FM aired Sir Karl’s Lament for the Valley (which was written especially for me) on 16 October 2015 which is a personal dream (of many) come true.
I became a Yeoman through the Constant & Kit Lambert Junior Fellowship while on the RCM Artist Diploma course. This fellowship perhaps had the most impact on my artistic development, giving me the opportunity to brainstorm and see my own projects ‘Stage Presence – does it matter?’ and the concert series of ‘Illustrator of violin repertoire – complete 10 Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Piano with 10 different pianists’ come alive. It helped me grow and believe in myself, and it was a personal highlight to watch the Beethoven project become a sold-out concert series.

You’re a 2015/2016 St John’s Smith Square Young Artist. What does this involve?
As a young artist, this is a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with a prestigious venue such as St John’s Smith Square who have invited me to give three recitals throughout the season. I have also serendipitously been invited to perform a Tchaikovsky Concerto with Stoneleigh Youth Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square in July 2016 following a concert of the Sibelius Concerto last season.

As an active social media user, how do you keep fans engaged through social media?
I don’t see myself as an active social media user but I try to keep my audience informed not only of my concerts but my musical development through posts on Twitter, video clips from my performances on YouTube, and news in my seasonal newsletters. I feel so honoured that many audience members keep in touch, are interested in my development, and come to my concerts over the years.

What would be your dream performance or project?
I have so many dream performances and projects in mind. Perhaps one I can share would be that one day I will write a Violin Concerto for myself and premiere it – I am not sure when this will be, but fingers crossed it will be during this lifetime!

What are you most looking forward to over the next six months?
In the next six months, I am looking forward to performing concertos by Sibelius, Tchaikovsky, Glazunov and Saint-Saens with orchestras in London and Cambridge alongside the St John’s Smith Square Young Artist scheme. I am also working towards my debut CD which is very exciting.

To find out more about Joo Yeon Sir, visit jooyeonsir.com or connect via:
Youtube: jooyeonsir
Twitter: @jooyeonsir
Facebook: jooyeon.sir