Santa Rosa Symphony opens season with Mozart
Violinist Julian Rhee, a 21-year-old senior at the New England Conservatory, spent most of the pandemic with his family in Wisconsin, doing some soul searching and back-to-basics work on his instrument.
“Up until March 2021, I was oriented toward why I’m doing music and asking myself serious questions,” he said. “Being home and not being able to play (in public) was weird.”
Rhee also used the extra time to expand his repertoire, taking on new pieces and polishing them up to a fine sheen.
One of the new works he spent time “woodshedding” — practicing over and over until he could play it flawlessly — was Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, the “Turkish.”
Rhee originally was scheduled to perform the Mozart concerto during the finale of the Santa Rosa Symphony’s 2020-2021 season. Instead, he’ll kick off the 2021-2022 season with the beloved concerto during three concerts with the symphony this weekend — with live audiences for the first time since February 2020 — at the Green Music Center’s Weill Hall. Rounding out the program will be Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” Libby Larsen’s “Deep Summer Music” and Gabriella Smith’s “Rush.”
The orchestra will be led by Music Director Francesco Lecce-Chong, who has mentored Rhee since they first met onstage in 2015 at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, where Lecce-Chong was the assistant conductor. Since then, they also have performed together with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the San Diego Symphony and the Eugene Symphony Orchestra.
“This will be our fifth time playing together,” Rhee said. “He gave me a lot of inspiration growing up, since I was 14 when we met. … I really admire him for his musicianship and for his passion for what he’s doing.”
Rhee won first prize in the 2020 Elmar Oliveira International Violin Competition in January 2020 after playing the challenging Saint-Saens Violin Concerto No. 3. But he didn’t tackle the relatively straightforward Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 until later that year.
“I started working on this piece when the pandemic started,” Rhee said. “Francesco felt that having more Mozart in my fingers would be really helpful, so he inspired me to get working on it.”
Rhee grew up in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and graduated high school at the Music Institute of Chicago Academy, where he studied with Almita and Roland Vamos. The violinist credits his Chicago teachers with encouraging him to connect with his deepest emotions while he plays.
“I was pushed a lot to play with my immediate feelings and to connect to the music in a way that was visceral,” he said. “It’s very abstract, but I try my best to have a joy in playing.”
That sense of pure joy was exactly what captured Lecce-Chong’s ear when he first heard Rhee perform.
“I’ve been keeping a close eye on him,” Lecce-Chong said. “I love that his virtuosity is an afterthought. The first thing you recognize is the musicality and the warmth. Then you notice that the violin is easy for him.”
Now that he’s more mature, Rhee is taking his musicality to new heights under his current teacher at the New England Conservatory, Miriam Fried, who encourages the violinist to think about music in a deeper way, by analyzing every note and chord rather than relying on instinct.
“She believes that spontaneity comes from an exceptional level of preparation, and once you figure out all the possibilities … you can pick and choose from what you’ve already practiced,” Rhee said. “Nothing is left to chance.”
For the Mozart piece, simplistic in its length and musical content, Rhee said the challenge is to let the beautiful lines of melody speak for themselves.
“That makes it really difficult for the performer. We want to make it special and try really hard to make it unique,” he said. “So to not overdo it was what was difficult.”
For the past six years, Rhee has performed on a violin made in 1916 by Italian Vincenzo Postiglione, the most influential luthier of the modern Neapolitan school.
“Its been with me for the vast majority of my performances and competitions, so I think the huge benefit of that is I’ve gotten to know the instrument,” he said. “This particular instrument has an immediate and bright sound to it, so for the Mozart, it works quite well. It has a liveliness that is very open and generous.”
Growing up in a musical family, Rhee started studying violin at age 5 at a Suzuki school near his house. His sister, Tabby, currently studies viola at Juilliard.
“My grandmother was an opera singer, and music was always in the household growing up,” Rhee said. “My mom put the instrument in my hands, and it took me a long time, until middle school, until I realized I really loved it.”
While sheltering in place at home during the pandemic, Rhee’s mother also encouraged him to start cooking out of their pantry He was a quick study.
“I was doing a lot of Korean food, because I’m Korean,” he said. “Then I was also doing Gordon Ramsey nights. One of his infamous dishes is Beef Wellington, and it took me five hours to make it.”
Now living by himself in Boston, Rhee is putting those kitchen skills to work, though with simpler dishes like pasta and “basic carb meals.”
After he graduates, Rhee plans to continue to graduate school, but in the meantime he’s finding his inspiration from music lessons of the past.
“My teachers have tried to instill in me this immediate connection to the joy that music has for everybody,” he said. “There’s not a performance that I don’t still get nervous for. … But nerves create a unique excitement for live performance. You only get one shot at this. I missed that so much during the pandemic.”
Note on COVID-19: Concert attendees will be required to show a photo ID and either proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test within 72 hours of the concert. Masks are required. Each attendee will receive a wristband that will allow for easy exit/entry outdoors during intermission. All musicians, staff and stagehands are fully vaccinated and will be masked.
Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dianepete56