For someone who plays the cello with such maturity and profound beauty, it’s odd to think that Hee-Young Lim might have once chosen not to be a cellist. She might have become a pianist instead. Miss Lim is affectingly honest and has a refreshing sense of humour too. I found that out when I called her over Skype to talk about her extraordinarily beautiful recording Russian Cello Sonatas – Rachmaninov | Prokofiev (Sony Classical, 2020); a duet with the French pianist Nathalia Milstein.
It was early morning in Seoul – late evening in Milton, Ontario, where I live – when Hee-Young Lim and I connected via ether to talk about her music, what made her decide to perform these particular cello sonatas and what’s coming in her young career that seems to be progressing ever-upward at breakneck speed. She was in her home-studio, looking beautifully fresh and ready to take on another day in Seoul, which seemed to have tamed this pandemic-causing coronavirus that has turned our world upside down. For her it meant no performances at the present time; not even trips to the school where she teaches, or to practice spaces inside concert venues. Like all musicians across the globe, her world too has come to a grinding halt.
But Miss Lim sounded far from restless. On the contrary, she has a Stoicism far beyond her young years. I realise this almost immediately from the implacable calm with which she answers questions about her art. It comes to me then that this sense of calm also makes for the remarkable erudition which informs her music. You cannot mistake her virtuosity. But the serious wisdom of her musicianship comes as a surprise. This side of her is thrown in high relief when you speak to her. She tells me about the beginning of her love for music.
“When I was in kindergarten I actually fell in love with the piano. There was a piano in class and I remember sitting down to play it,” she tells me with a laugh. “I really loved the sound. So I told my mother that I wanted to learn the piano.” Miss Lim’s mother sought a tutor not far from where they lived and thus began what Miss Lim thought would be a career in music – as a pianist.
“A friend of my mom brought a small cello one day, saying her daughter decided not to play it. She gave it to us, but I didn’t want to play it either. And then, one day, a friend of mine just came to play some games with me and she saw the cello. She was very interested and my mom was like, ‘Yeah why don’t you keep it, because Hee-Young never shows any interest.’ I got so mad I was like, ‘I’m going to play it. You cannot touch it.’ And look at me today… I’m still playing it,” she says with a child-like giggle.
A gifted child Hee-Young Lim graduated school by the time she was fourteen, entered the Korean National University as fifteen – the youngest student to be accepted at the prestigious institution. After graduate school, Miss Lim was admitted to the New England Conservatory in Boston. Her rise to eminence was meteoric thereafter.