Before embarking in a conversation with 21-year-old Korean pianist Hyuk Lee, I worked my way through some of his recordings on YouTube. Irrespective of the selected repertory – from Scarlatti and Haydn’s sonatas to Sacrifice, a little contemporary gem by Fuyuhiko Sasaki – it was obvious that he has a clear sense of where he wants to go and of what he aims to achieve. A similar self-confidence tempered by modesty was palpable in the conversation we had.
Lee currently lives in Moscow, where he has been a student in the piano class of Vladimir Ovchinnikov at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory since 2016. I caught up with him as he was preparing to leave for Yaroslavl to perform Prokofiev’s challenging Piano Concerto no. 2. We talked about his career path, his affinity for certain composers and his future plans.
Born in 2000 in Seoul, Lee does not come from a family with a musical background. He recalls vividly his first contact with classical music: he was three or four and having fun on a playground, when he heard some music (possibly Tchaikovsky) and “fell in love with it”, basking an entire day in that soundscape. His mother quickly enrolled him in a local music academy, first registering him for violin classes and, days later, enrolling him for piano lessons as well. He has been dividing his time between the two instruments ever since.
Prepared to renounce neither the piano nor the violin, striving to play both at the highest possible level – his “main goal”, he told me – Lee is indeed a singular case among the young musicians active today. (We mused a bit about other examples in the history of musical interpretation, from Mozart to Georges Enescu and Julia Fischer). But that is not all. He also dreams of “becoming a great conductor” even if he did not start any formal studies yet. But continuing his journey means steely determination and a draconic practice regimen: except for the moments he is preparing for a competition and must focus on his piano playing – more on that later – Lee practices for four hours daily on each of the two instruments.
There have been several important turning points in his career that he likes to point out. When he was seven, with his family only intermittently able to afford private piano lessons, he won the third prize in a competition organised by a local music high school that allowed him to continue studying there for the next several years. Three years later, a special prize in a local “Young Mozart” competition brought the chance to play Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 11 in Salzburg. In 2012, he won the first prize at the 8th Moscow Young Chopin Piano competition, an achievement that made him decide once and for all that he wanted to “become a professional musician”. At that point, he told me, “I understood that music is everything for me”. In the same year, Lee became a scholarship student of the Doosan Yonkang Foundation and his musical studies have been continuously supported ever since by grants from the Korean organisation.