Escher String Quartet violinist Danbi Um uses chamber music to travel through time
Danbi Um is serious about her position as a violinist for Escher String Quartet. That’s SERIOUS in all caps.
At 7, she was a grand-prize winner at a competition in South Korea. By age 8, she was starting to assimilate from South Korean into Canadian life so she could study violin. By 9, a teacher suggested she start auditioning to gain wider recognition.
After less than a year of even more practice, Um was accepted into Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. Her early career reads like a who’s who of young classical artists. Now, The Strad calls her “utterly sizzling, a marvelous show of superb technique.”
Um—also a member of The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s CMS Two and a soloist and ensemble musician who performs with orchestras around the world—recently won a 2018 Salon de Virtuosi Career Grant.
In an email interview with the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State, Um’s answers present a picture of a composed and stoic artist. But she also reveals a quiet, gentle appreciation of her surroundings. Her musical taste reflects that.
“I have a special fondness for music that has a strong sense of Viennese and Hollywood flavors, such as works by Erich Korngold,” Um says. “His music can be best described as wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve. With such sultry, sensuous, luxuriously romantic, and nostalgic harmonies, his music lets us time travel to the golden era of Hollywood.”
Um will make her Penn State debut with Escher String Quartet and pianist Gilles Vonsattel on October 30 at Schwab Auditorium.
On the debatable concept of masculinity and femininity in classical music preference and playing style:
My views on musicians and music, the people that I admire and am inspired by, my artistic goals, what I think is beautiful and profound music, etc. are based very little on gender—female or masculine. It has everything to do with the beauty of music in itself (mainly sound and phrasings) and what it means to me on an emotional level.
On the ensemble dynamic, being the youngest and sole female member:
I wouldn’t say that the dynamic is any different than when I play in other chamber groups that have a specific and mutual goal—striving to make beautiful music together. As a quartet hand picks each member, there will always (and hopefully) be mutual admiration and respect for each other as musicians. As a group, you have the same artistic goal, and sometimes the process could be rough, but as we all aim to play the best that we can, there are no residue of hard feelings afterwards.
Her thoughts on being appointed the second woman to the quartet (after co-founder and former member Wu Jie):
The sound of a quartet inevitably changes with each lineup, as we all have different personalities in playing. Technically, a change of one person changes 25 percent of the quartet sound, but there is so much more than that. As any sensitive musician would, everybody starts adjusting to the new person consciously and subconsciously ... . I am sure I have a certain artistic temperament that I bring to the table, which I suspect are both positive and negative. Ideally, a group effort is made to enhance the strengths and improve the weaknesses.
On the artistic concept that inspired the ensemble’s name:
Although each of us have different artistic personalities and ways of expressing ourselves, the concept of what makes a great musician and/or a concert is surprisingly similar. To be specific, this has to do with the concept of beautiful and emotionally meaningful sound and ways of phrasing. All our heroes are from the past, during the “golden era of string playing,” and since that is the case, what you strive to achieve artistically cannot be far off from each other.
Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.