Meet the Artists



Meet the artists for our Spring programme. Discover what they were like when they were teenagers and their personal musical journey.


Unsuk Chin, composer

Unsuk Chin was born in 1961 in Seoul, South Korea, and has lived in Berlin since 1988. Her music is modern in language, but lyrical and non-doctrinaire in communicative power. Chin has received many honours, including the 2004 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for her Violin Concerto, the 2005 Arnold Schoenberg Prize, the 2010 Prince Pierre Foundation Music Award, and the 2012 Ho-Am Prize.

She has been commissioned by leading performing organisations and her music has been performed by orchestras and ensembles including the Berlin Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble Modern, Kronos Quartet and Arditti Quartet. In addition, Unsuk Chin has been active in writing electronic music, receiving commissions from IRCAM and other electronic music studios. Unsuk Chin’s works are published exclusively by Boosey & Hawkes.

Why will Mannequin connect with teenage audiences?

Mannequin is an imaginary choreography based on a story by the early 19th century writer E. T. A. Hoffmann. Its main topics are the problems of perception and of personal identity, including the questions of 'Who am I?', of what matters in identity, what it takes for a person to endure from one time to another, and so on – all themes that become crucial during adolescence.

What intrigues you about teenage musicians playing this piece?

I have worked a few times with youth orchestras, including a large project with the National Youth Orchestra of the Netherlands, and I was absolutely thrilled by the energy, the commitment and the open-mindedness. In addition, there is the workshop atmosphere which I am very fond of, there is lots of rehearsal time and it's a kind of 'sanctuary' as opposed to the sometimes rigid structures in the mainstream music business. I love that. And it's great that the conductor is Ilan Volkov, with whom I’ve realised a number of projects and is without doubt among my favourite conductors: the combination of utter precision and high-voltage energy he brings into the creation of a new piece is exceptional.

What were you like as a teenage musician?

I was born in 1961, and at that time – following the disastrous Korean War – South Korea was one of the world's poorest countries. A rapid economic growth started in the 1970s, but the atmosphere remained repressed because of the military dictatorship. It was a difficult time growing up, especially being a girl, since the society was patriarchal, hierarchical and oppressive. Pursuing a career in music was not an option for a woman.

What characterised your musical journey?

I had to overcome some obstacles. My parents weren't musicians, but luckily, we had an upright piano (my father, a priest, bought it for his services). I wanted to become a pianist, but it was impossible even to dream of piano lessons, because these were too expensive and because, as the family's second daughter, I wasn't at all important in the Confucianist family and society hierarchy. But I was lucky that a middle school music teacher, a learned composer, discovered my talent in music and encouraged me to also become a composer. He provided me with ample opportunities to listen to records of classical music which were rather precious in Korea back then. Before I studied at the university, I was essentially self-taught – for instance, I learned from copying out musical scores (which were precious) in their entirety. The next obstacle was entering music college. The entrance examinations and their demands were very rigid, and one needed to be prepared by private tutors in order to pass them – and I wasn't. Instead of using certain codified chord progressions, I used freely impressionist or atonal harmonies, which were a definite no-no, as was my use of a ballpoint-pen. I failed the entrance exam twice, and that certainly was the hardest time in my life. If you fail a university exam in Korea you are regarded as a total failure. The educational system is pyramidal: you have to get to the very few top universities and there are no byways or alternatives. For the third time, I finally passed, and after that everything happened quite quickly. Within a few years, my works were performed internationally and I went to Germany to complete my studies with György Ligeti.

What was your most inspiring musical experience as a teenager?

I acquired my knowledge of the repertoire through recordings and scores, but the latter were very rare. However, I remember holding the score of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps in my hands – it was a feeling of being connected to something sacred. As for my musical tastes, they constantly changed as they should at that age. At one moment, the hero could be Beethoven, at the next Tchaikovsky or Mozart or Chopin. Stravinsky was the most modern composer I encountered: I absolutely adored his Russian ballets and his Violin Concerto and was bowled over by their colourfulness and originality. And then of course, there was my adoration of American and British pop music.

What was your most exciting audience experience of your teenage years?

I didn't have any audience experiences really, but I helped my family financially from early on by accompanying my father's services on a small organ and by playing things like Wagner's Bridal Chorus at weddings and other occasions. Unexpectedly, this first musical activity proved very helpful: playing chorales taught me a lot about the rudiments of harmony and I also had to learn to transpose on the spot by adjusting to the churchgoers whose singing was frequently off-key.

When did you know you wanted to spend your life writing music?

I was thirteen when I decided to become a composer. (Originally, I wished to become a concert pianist). There were two reasons for the career decision: firstly, my middle school music teacher encouraged me to do so (though I misunderstood his kind advice for a judgement about my talent in piano playing and felt devastated). Secondly, Myung-Whun Chung, the great Korean conductor, who was then in his early 20s, had just won a prize at the Tchaikovsky Competition as a pianist. When I learned about that I recognized that it would be too late for me to become a performing musician, given my lack of formal piano training.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done as a composer?

The hardest thing was when I stopped composing for almost three years. That was in the late 1980s, when I studied with György Ligeti in Hamburg. I had already won international prizes and had received performances and some 'success' but, when Ligeti saw my compositions, he took his wastepaper basket and told me to throw them in since they were just a skilled imitation of the European mainstream avant-garde. That was typical for Ligeti and, although he was right, it felt like a very harsh treatment. Finding my own voice and also overcoming the cultural shock of moving to Europe took some time. And that was difficult: not at all knowing what was going to happen and trying not to lose patience.

What are your top tips for teenage musicians and composers?

I quote from a lecture of Jukka Tiensuu, a contemporary composer I admire: 

1. Know history, to avoid involuntary copying;
2. Know the means of expression, to be able to do what you want, and not only what you can;
3. Have the patience to work out all details;
4. Have the courage to remain Utopian.

Any more words of wisdom?

‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’


Ilan Volkov, conductor

Israeli-born Ilan Volkov began his conducting career at the age of nineteen and in 2003 was appointed Principal Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, becoming its Principal Guest Conductor in 2009. Between 2011 and 2014 he has held the post of Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra.

Since 2012 he has curated and directed a three-day festival of contemporary music, Tectonics, in Reykjavik and Glasgow with Iceland Symphony Orchestra and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra respectively. The festival has since expanded its reach with events held in Adelaide, Tel Aviv and New York.

A frequent guest with leading orchestras worldwide, Volkov works regularly with a wide range of ensembles, including the Israel Philharmonic, the WDR and BBC Symphony Orchestras, the City of Birmingham Symphony and Ensemble Modern. His many critically acclaimed recordings include works by Stravinsky, Liszt, Britten and Jonathan Harvey.

Ilan Volkov is one of the guiding forces behind Levontin 7, one of the most adventurous performance venues in Tel Aviv that brings together diverse musical genres, including classical, jazz, electronic and rock.

Why did you choose this music for NYO to play?  

I wanted to juxtapose two masterworks of the first half of the 20th century- the known and loved Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Grainger's rarely played The Warriors. The Grainger is ideal for a huge youth orchestra- it’s a wonderfully colourful piece, totally unique in the repertoire.

Why will NYO musicians have a great time in your rehearsals? 

Well I hope they do! Rehearsals are the most interesting time, where we learn the music and get deeper and deeper in it to fully understand and grasp it. Orchestral sound is still the best in the whole world so one can be astounded again and again with it in rehearsals - while in concerts things go by quickly and vanish...

What were you like as a teenage musician? 

I studied both violin and piano plus composition. I also listened at home to tons of recordings- from Bach to Stravinsky and spent a lot of time alone looking at orchestral scores of works like Tristan and Isolde, Wozzeck, etc. It was probably the time I was the most diligent and curious.

What characterised your musical journey? 

Things keep changing, which is the wonderful aspect of being a musician. Moving to London when I was seventeen was a very important step and I still feel that my musical home is in the UK. At that time in London ( the mid-nineties) I was also listening to so much classical new music, improvised concerts and much more that really influenced my interests till today.


What was your most inspiring musical experience as a teenager? 

Probably going to rehearsals of Sir John Eliot Gardiner's Così fan tutte in Lisbon when I was around 14. That was my first time seeing and understanding what opera is.

What was your most exciting audience experience of your teenage years?

That’s a hard one. I used to go to Dartington Summer School for a few years where my father taught and there were so many amazing concerts there - from 17th-century operas to Globokar and Finnissy.

When did you know you wanted to be a musician for life?

There was not one moment when this happened. But I was obsessed with music from a very young age so never really thought about anything else.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done as a musician?

Being a Music Director is difficult and complicated as it involves not only music making but lots of psychology as well.

What’s your number one tip for orchestral playing? 

Basically- LISTEN! But also relax your ego and learn how to enjoy it- also when it’s hard.

Any more words of wisdom for teenage musicians? 

Open yourselves to as many experiences as you can - both in other kinds of music, arts, travelling etc. This is what makes you who you are and makes you a fully rounded musician.

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