Pianist Soyeon Lee estimates that Bela Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 provides minimal opportunity for disagreement between soloist and conductor. “There’s a lot of dialogue,” she says. “The piano and orchestra talk to each other constantly. Bartok was not trying to create a single entity; therefore, there’s a great deal of freedom, for both soloist and orchestra. It’s not like late Beethoven which is always controversial because everybody has views about how the piece fits together.”
Lee plays the Bartok concerto with the Princeton Symphony Orchestra at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 26, in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium. Scott Yoo, music director of the San Luis Obispo, California, Mozaic Festival, conducts. The program also includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture to “The Magic Flute” and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“The Pathetique”).
Gene DeLisa, PSO program annotator, composer, and musicologist, gives a pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. The concert is the last of the 2008-`09 PSO season.
“The Concerto No. 3 was the last work Bartok composed before he died,” Lee says in a telephone interview from her Princeton home. “The last 17 bars had not yet been orchestrated when he died.” Tibor Serly, Bartok’s student, finished the orchestration. “Bartok was ill with leukemia. He wanted to write the concerto as a gift for his wife. He also hoped that his wife and his son could play the piece and make a living from it after he died.
“I believe that if Bartok had lived to finish the work, he would have gone back, played around with the dynamics, and edited and re-edited the piece. There are not many markings in the score. Serly, having been a long-time student of Bartok, knew him very well and inserted guesses about Bartok’s markings for performance, such as dynamics in the score, in brackets. With so few markings, you do wonder how to interpret the piece. Still, their absence gives the performer a sense of freedom. Who knows? Maybe Bartok intended to leave a lot to the performer in this piece.
“It was a reflective time of Bartok’s life,” Lee continues. “He was coming to view his life in spiritual terms. Although Bartok was a known atheist, he marked the second movement ‘religioso.’ The third concerto is not as rhythmically complex or technically difficult as the other two concertos, but it’s demanding in a different way. It’s more introverted than the other piano concertos, so it’s an interpretive challenge. The earlier works are dissonant. But here, Bartok is at his most lyrical. People in the audience who are only familiar with Bartok’s earlier B works will be surprised at how lyrical this is.”
Actually, Lee is not sure whether lyricism is unique to the third concerto, or whether it lay hidden in Bartok’s earlier music. “I heard a recording of Bartok playing his second concerto,” Lee says. “It’s very angular and rhythmic, but Bartok plays it lyrically. He uses the same approach in other recordings of his music. When Bartok plays his own compositions, they don’t sound as brutal as you might expect.”
Lee was born in South Korea in 1979. Her first name, Soyeon, is pronounced “Soyen,” as if the “o” was missing. Her parents, both lawyers, met in law school in Seoul. “They’re not musical,” Lee says. Maybe musicality is a recessive trait in the family. Lee began studying piano at age five. Her sister, Soeun, three years her junior, studied violin and became quite good at it, says Lee. “She’s my biggest fan and my biggest support.”
Soeun Lee is now a pop star in Korea, which happened by accident, says her sister. “She stumbled onto it.” The two sisters give joint concerts occasionally in Seoul. Soeun expects to study law in the United States.
The family came to the United States when Lee was nine. “My dad was studying at West Virginia University for five years, Lee says. “Towards the end of his stay, I started doing local piano competitions. A teacher from Interlochen heard me, and offered me a scholarship to the boarding school when I was 14.” Established in 1960, Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Boarding High School grew out of the National High School Arts camp founded in 1928.
Lee remained in the United States by herself after the family returned to Korea. “It was a rough transition,” she says. “Our family was so close. It was especially hard on my sister to go back alone. This was before E-mail and cell phones. You couldn’t just make international calls for three cents a minute. For me the separation was a painful time. But it contributed to my musical growth.”
The family expects to be temporarily reunited in Princeton, where Lee has been living since her marriage to Tom Szaky in May, 2008. Szaky is the founder of Trenton’s TerraCycle, which turns garbage into environment-saving products, including its famous fertilizer made from worm poop (U.S. 1 cover story November 10, 2004). Szaky can be seen in “Garbage Moguls,” a documentary that may turn into a series, airing on Wednesday, April 22 (Earth Day) on the National Geographic Channel. Lee’s father, a government researcher in Seoul, is spending a sabbatical year at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. Her mother has accompanied him. Sister Soeun, busy recording a CD in Seoul, will join the family when she finishes her work on the album.
Lee earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New York’s Juilliard School. While a Juilliard student, she harvested a fistful of honors and prizes, including the William Petschek Piano Debut Award, which made possible her 2004 debut at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. She met Szaky, her future husband, at the concert when one of his company’s investors, and a fan of classical music, took him to the concert.
Like Szaky, Lee is an advocate of expanding environmental consciousness. As a member of Pennington’s Honey Brook Organic Farm, she is entitled to pick produce there from June to September. Moreover, she takes her advocacy of the environment to the concert hall.
Winner of the 2004 Concert Artists Guild International Competition, Lee turned the debut concert sponsored by the organization into an eco-event. Husband Szaky’s Terracycle company and Honest Tea, an organic bottled tea company that uses recyclable pouches, joined Concert Artists Guild, in presenting “Re!nvented,” at Zankel Hall in February, 2008.
For the second half of the Zankel concert Lee played recycled works: Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne in D minor from the Partita for solo violin; Maurice Ravel’s piano adaptation of “La Valse,” originally written for orchestra; and Huang Ruo’s “Divergence: for Piano and Speaker,” a recasting of his concerto for five players.
To emphasize recycling, Lee changed from the black dress she wore for the first half of the concert, which consisted of unrecycled music by Isaac Albeniz and Sergei Prokofiev. After intermission Lee wore a floor-length strapless gown created from 6,000 recyclable grape juice containers collected by hundreds of American schoolchildren. Nina Valenti designed the gown. The gown was acclaimed in the “green” world, and New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini praised Lee’s performance.
On Tuesday, April 21, on the eve of Earth Day, Koch International released a CD of the Zankel concert at the New York Club “Le Poisson Rouge.” “Most bars do not have good instruments for pianists,” Lee says. “But this one has a Steinway D, the normal concert grand, which makes it excellent for piano concerts.
“The Zankel concert was Part I of ‘Re!nvented,’” Lee says. “The CD release is Part II. I hope to keep adding to it.
“I didn’t know, when I recorded the Zankel concert, that the packaging of the `Re!nvented’ CD that came out of it would be made of trash, just like my dress. The case is made of used snack bags, shredded and fused together. It’s not the usual transparent, pristine thing. Every case is slightly different because, in a way, each one is homemade, since it consists of garbage.”
At the moment, Lee has minimal time for eco activities. She is practicing seven or eight hours a day. In addition to her PSO appearance, her schedule calls for her to play four concerts in the New York area as part of a series presented by the Chamber Ensemble of St. Luke’s Chamber Orchestra. Lee’s contribution to the concerts, which are called “Hopeless Romantics,” is to play music by Clara Schumann and Robert Schumann.
Furthermore, she is preparing for the grueling Van Cliburn Competition, which takes place in Fort Worth, Texas, every four years and starts on May 22. “I have one student who I teach whenever I can,” she says. “But I’m having a hard time scheduling him.”
Composers’ Final Bows, Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Sunday, April 26, 4 p.m. Scott Yoo conducts a program featuring music of Mozart, Bartok, and Tchaikovsky. Soyeon Lee of Princeton on piano. Pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. $16 to $64. 609-497-0020 or www.princetonsymphony.org.