The commitment of a young cellist: all strings attached

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The commitment of a young cellist: all strings attached

Would a preppy-looking 19 year old understand the desperate mind of a composer who was exiled from home and not allowed to return until his death? Ordinarily, most unlikely. But if that teenager is the extraordinary cellist Chang Han-na, it's a different story. Just listening to Chang talk for five minutes is enough to sense her musical seriousness and growing maturity. You just know she understand concepts beyond her years.

"It's a whole new approach to looking at musical notes," she says. Chang visited Seoul last week from her home in New York City to perform a complicated cello concerto composed by Yun Isang the exiled Korean composer who died in East Berlin. Chang's concert with the Korea Symphony Orchestra is part of the Asian Contemporary Music Festival. "For a cellist, Yun's music is so difficult that there isn't a day that passes when you don't snap your strings while practicing. Each sound to this composer was a small universe of its own."

Since her debut at age 6, Chang has had a celebrity reputation among preteen fans that rivals that of Britney Spears in the United States. But Chang has done it relying solely on her musical intelligence, not her midriff. Last August, when Chang performed in Seoul, about 300 mostly young female fans were waiting for her autograph in a line that went from the lobby of the Seoul Arts Center, out of the hall and around the building.

The cello concerto by Yun for the performance on Friday, Chang says, carries the image of "a wounded dragon," struggling to fly. The highly nonlinear, ambiguous notes are based on the composer's experiences of imprisonment and exile. The idea of playing Yun's cello concert for the upcoming performance was introduced to Chang by her former teacher, Seo Gyeong-sun, the same man who suggested she take up the cello in the first place.

"In a larger frame, this composition has also to do with the relationship between society and the self," she says. "In the music, such a connection is described through the subtle interplay of chords between the orchestra and cello. What's interesting is that in this music, the orchestra is not that generous to the cello soloist at all. Instead, the orchestra almost overpowers the soloist's sounds."

Recently Chang released a new album titled "The Swan," a collection of encores and show pieces on EMI Classics. The album includes the "Korean Elegy" by Yun-joon Kim. Already Chang has played several contemporary works, which many young performers avoid because of the level of ambiguity in many of these compositions. "It takes so much time and energy for musicians to play a contemporary composition," Chang says.

At 19, Chang knows how to express her thoughts well. But to enrich the artistic depth of her playing and to understand classical composers better, Chang recently decided to study classical philosophy when she enters college. She has been accepted into Harvard University, beginning in September. For a musician who is scheduled for a minimum of 40 to 50 performances a year, Chang is concerned how much patience her professors might endure for a freshman student. "Harvard has agreed to give me lot of support," she says. "But I'll see. It's difficult to predict how much I'll have to sacrifice for my musical career."

by Park Soo-mee

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