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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 5 February 2010

Alexandre Da Costa & Wonny Song: Synchronicity

by Lucie Renaud / February 1, 2010

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In an atmosphere of low-key elegance, just this side of trendy, with lounge music issuing from the speakers, the two young men sit side by side, obviously working out some technical detail in a contract to sign, contacts to establish or repertoire to take on. Their sculpted hairstyles set off their impeccable suits, worn over strategically unbuttoned black shirts. One has an open, seductive smile and the other the smoldering glance of an Asian film star. After a quick double-take, I readjust my image of the child prodigies who advanced by leaps and bounds, collecting first prizes in prestigious competitions with a regularity that became unbearable for other young hopefuls. People see us as if we were still 18 or 19,” Alexandre Da Costa begins, “even though we have contacts all over the world and give between 40 and 50 concerts a year together, 30 of them outside Canada and 15 in major concert halls.”

These two musicians have followed parallel paths since their beginnings. Born in the same year (1979), they inevitably came into competition on several occasions, since, until relatively recently, Alexandre played double octaves as well as double stops. The violinist laughingly says that hearing Wonny play convinced him he would never make a concert pianist. Their atypical itineraries led both to the Université de Montréal music faculty, where, at first, they felt a bit lost in the midst of aspirants three years their senior. “We were always together and we really liked to kid around,” recalls Wonny. Complementary choices separated them for a few years. Alexandre went to study in Spain, at the Escuela Superior de Música Reina Sofia in Madrid, under the fiery Zakhar Bron, the teacher of Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin. Wonny furthered his studies at the University of Toronto with Anton Kuerti and at the Glenn Gould Professional School with Marc Durand before completing his doctoral studies in 2004 at the University of Minnesota under Lydia Artymiw, a disciple of Gary Graffman. While the violinist’s career beginnings were centred in Portugal, Spain, and Italy, 80% of the pianist’s first engagements were in the United States.

Tired of crossing paths at airports, they devised a way to meet more often. When their respective schedules gave them a few days off in Montreal simultaneously, they created a partnership, an entity named DC&S, multiplying their development possibilities. In Alexandre’s words: “there’s fierce competition at this stage of our careers, but with Wonny, it’s totally different. Together, we really can go further. Before, winning a competition assured a musician of a good career, but these days, we have to develop projects with orchestra conductors and think outside the box. For better or for worse, we’re the children of globalization.”

Fully attuned to 21st century life, they stay in close contact electronically. “Alexandre is my best friend, and my only link with my past. Luckily, we lead the same kind of lives. We can talk about our careers or just sit in a café or a bistro and relax,” Wonny explains. Alexandre adds: “every time we get together, it’s like a reunion. We help each other psychologically. Artists’ lives can be stressful. We don’t do what we do for the glamour of it. Our paths were set out for us and we were catapulted into our careers without having much of a choice in the matter.” However, the violinist doesn’t sound as if he has any regrets.

In February, the two friends will perform wi­ th I Musici de Montréal in the rarely heard Concerto for piano, violin and strings in D minor by the young Mendelssohn. “The work has a lot of beauty and merit,” says Song, “but you have to be a magician to make it seem shorter than it really is!” A thoughtful pause occurs during his description of the second movement, an intimate dialogue between the two soloists, a passage that allows both performers great latitude. At the end of April, at Carnegie Hall, the duo will reprise the concerto with I Musici as well as perform The Sounds from Mountain Temple by Korean composer Cheonwook Kim, a powerfully evocative hybrid work in which piano and violin each have a chance to shine. Between these two concerts, Alexandre and Wonny have been invited to perform in Valencia in Lorin Maazel’s chamber music series, in works by Brahms and Beethoven, two composers whose complete works they intend to record. “This is a complicated long-term project,” says Alexandre. “Of course, people ask us: ‘Why another complete works?’ We have to respond in a concrete way, as living musicians.” The violinist, whose initial recording mission was to bring little-known repertoire to light, now feels that limiting himself in that sense would be a mistake: “It’s necessary to establish certain standards for audiences with the great works first, and then find a balance between the two types of repertoire.”

The partners have no intention of modifyiing the basic concert format. Instead of opting for multimedia presentations or hybrid forms, the musicians prefer exchanges with the audience before performances. “Ours is a top-quality product in the tradition of great concert series. It’s enough that people like it and come back for more. We aim to increase the public’s appreciation of the classical concert in its present form, adding value without necessarily changing the protocol,” states the violinist who dared to play Manic Depression by Jimi Hendrix as an encore right after performing a concerto under the baton of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos a few years ago, and who played incognito in the Montreal metro system last October, replicating Joshua Bell’s experiment. For these two artists and businessmen, promotion is essential, and they are frequent guests on radio and TV morning shows (and not just on specialty channels) to talk about their tastes and interests as early thirty-somethings. “We’re still young enough to appeal to the 20- to 30-year old demographic,” maintains Song. “We want them to understand that we’re not dinosaurs. There’s no difference between us and them: we listen to the same music, we like to discover new restaurants and try good wines. They should be able to catch on to our vision of classical music.”

The two musicians are well aware of the obstacles to overcome in reaching the top. “We’re against globalization in classical music,” says Alexandre. “Now, the record labels plan their CD launches according to where the artist already has a following. It’s harder than ever to reach an international audience. Whatever we’ve gained so far is the result of a lot of hard work.” A development plan that includes Asia is being put in place thanks to Alexandre’s contacts in China and Wonny’s connections in Korea. “It’s not as if we’re coming from nowhere. We’ve been building up a base brick by brick, and it’s solid.” United they stand!

Wonny Song: A Pianist of his Time

Born in South Korea and raised in Montreal, Wonny Song quickly convinced audiences and juries of his exceptional gifts. Canadian musical ambassador at age 14 at the World’s Fair in Seoul, gold medal winner of the Cincinnati World Piano Competition in 1994, first prize winner at the OSM competition the following year, winner of the Étoile Galaxie prize in 2002 and the Prix d’Europe in 2003, and first prize winner in the 2005 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, Wonny made his debut at Carnegie Hall in October 2005. That same year, he returned to his birthplace to inaugurate the new Chungmu Art Hall in Seoul. He recently gave two recitals at Maison de Radio France in Paris, made a five-concert tour of South Korea, and toured the U.S.A. “Playing in the southern States was a heart-warming experience. Quite often, the audience wasn’t familiar with the works, so I became a classical music ambassador.” Over the next few weeks, Wonny will be playing Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto while touring with the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra in Japan, but we’ll be able to catch him here in Quebec as well. “I always feel a special emotion when I know I’ll be playing in my city. It adds an extra challenge, as if you had to prove that you’ve made it.”

The pianist, mindful of leaving his performances to posterity, does not neglect his recording activity; his upcoming project is to record of all Mozart’s sonatas. Wonny feels a particular affinity with Mozart: “Like him, I’ve had my disappointments and successes as a musician; it influenced my playing and helped me understand the composer better. I think Mozart brings out something special in me, but I also wanted to give myself time to properly absorb the tiniest subtleties in his music. I worked on the sonatas with Anton Kuerti and Marc Durand, so in a way, it takes me back to my past. At the same time, I’ve tried to free myself from the visible traces of their teaching. I want to be totally independent. As an artist, if you feel like a carbon copy of your lineage, it doesn’t work. I respect my teachers tremendously, and I’m grateful to them for letting me be who I am. When I’m performing a work, I always ask myself: ‘Is it really me?’ You’ve got to stay faithful to yourself.”

When asked to name his favourite sonata, he hesitates between K. 311 and K. 279, both of which are devoid of the kind of flourishes that encourage exaggerated showmanship. “These sonatas have a lot more to them than it appears. Mozart’s exuberance means something completely different: there’s a melancholy strain running throughout his works.”

Wonny Song is also actively involved in the administration of the Lambda School of Music and Fine Arts, the brainchild of Angela Chan, who invited him as artist in residence when the school opened, barely a year and a half ago. In an era when over-specialization threatens to narrow global artistic perspectives, Lambda, located in Pierrefonds, advocates interdisciplinary learning, through music, dance, theatre, photography, and painting. Young musicians are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in several art forms, which complete each other. “There’s a need to revive young people’s interest in music and the other arts,” says Wonny.

The school is an impressive facility with state-of-the-art studios, a 120-seat concert hall with two pianos, a band room, and an apartment for guest artists who are spending a few days. Completely won over by this unique experiment, Wonny had no second thoughts about becoming associate director of the institution. He is in constant contact with Angela Chan by telephone or Skype to keep up with daily happenings at the school, and he stops in whenever his schedule permits. “I try to be available as often as possible. It’s important that the students mix with the teachers on an informal basis, so they’ll be stimulated by our daily routines. When I’m practising in the concert hall, for instance, I never stop the students from coming in and talking to me. This contact with the next generation of musicians inspires me, especially when I have to verbalize aspects of my playing that I’d taken for granted.”

[Translation: Darcy Dunton]

› Wonny Song and Alexandre Da Costa in Concert:
I Musici de Montréal, February 18, 2010
wonnysong.com / alexandredacosta.com / imusici.com

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