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Keep Your Eye on Cellist Soo Bae

March 4, 2009 | By Brian Wise
MusicalAmerica.com
NEW YORK -- In the dark back room of Barbès, a bar in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, bartenders speak in thick French accents as patrons wearing jeans and quirky facial hair sip glasses of imported beer. The space feels like an overstuffed Parisian café but instead of scratchy Jacques Brel recordings, tonight’s music is being provided by cellist Soo Bae. She is here through the auspices of New Music/New Places, a project administered by Concert Artists Guild, whose annual competition she won in 2005.

Bae’s program is strictly classical: solo works by Bach, Hindemith and Britten, and the diverse neighborhood audience remains receptive to her spoken introductions -- mostly historical tidbits and tips on what to listen for. Just 31, the Korean-born, Canadian-raised cellist is already an experienced hand at this kind of informal discourse. She has played in New York clubs like Joe’s Pub with EdgeEffect, a trio with fiddler Mark O'Connor and pianist Soyeon Lee that focuses on a hybrid style of classical, folk and bluegrass. She’s also played as a duo with jazz clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera at Jazz at Lincoln Center. And she is soon to form a folk-style duo with her doctor husband Jason Suh, who sings and plays guitar.

A slate of more classical recital and concerto appearances lies ahead, as well as outreach events in hospitals and schools around New York, where she lives. Bae says she finds equal satisfaction playing the Dvorák Cello Concerto (as she’ll do with the Kingston Symphony Orchestra in Ontario, CA, on March 28) in a formal concert setting as she does going solo at a trendy downtown restaurant such as New York’s Duane Park Café, where she appears May 2. She has premiered “Four Fragments,” a solo cello suite by Huang Ruo, a young Chinese-born, New York-based composer whose music blends Western techniques with Chinese timbres, and on May 21 will premiere “Scenes from Childhood,” a cello and piano piece by David Ludwig, who teaches at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, and has a growing catalog of chamber and orchestral works.

Last Fall, Bae recorded the solo caprices of 19th-century Italian cellist and composer Carlo Alfredo Piatti, which will be released next Fall on Naxos. The pieces are among the most technically demanding for cello and, according to Bae, have never been recorded as a cycle. “It was such a tough project because it has all kinds of crazy technical things,” she says. “I really like taking on challenging projects because I feel it expands me as a musician.”

Bae cites cellist-composers like Piatti and Gaspar Cassado as models for her own career, as she is increasingly drawn to arranging popular songs for the solo cello, which she often plays as encores. They include offbeat discoveries like “I lift your name on high,” a gospel tune, and “Still” by the Australian rock band Hillsong United, which she found on YouTube. She eventually hopes to record and publish a collection of her arrangements.

Born in Seoul, Bae moved with her family to Toronto at age six. She studied cello from an early age, entering Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, but abandoned the instrument at age 13, in a fit of teenage rebellion. Two years later she picked it up again, applying herself with renewed diligence and successfully auditioning for the Curtis Institute of Music.

“I was very, very fortunate to get in,” she explains, “because I thought I was lacking a lot of the things that everybody else had, having taken two years off. I felt like I was really challenged and worked all the time.”

After receiving her Bachelor of Music degree in 2001, Bae entered Juilliard on a full scholarship to study with the cellist Joel Krosnick. Earning a Masters degree followed by an Artist Diploma, she went on to become Krosnick’s teaching assistant, and now often covers for him when he’s away.

Bae’s Juilliard years were not all about endless days sequestered in the practice room. In 2005, she worked with pianist Soyeon Lee on creating a concert series called “Classyfunk,” designed to entice young people to classical music. The concerts, which included Juilliard dance students, had themes like “Latin,” “Romance,” and “Country,” the last of which featured a student piano trio playing O’Connor’s Johnny Cash tribute piece, "Poets and Prophets.” Bae says that, while she enjoys collaborating with artists like O’Connor and D’Rivera, “my main passion still remains deeply in the classical world.”

In the immediate term, Bae must consider the future of her cello, the Bonjour Stradivari from 1696, which has been on loan to her from the Canada Council for the Arts Instrument Bank for the last two years. Acquired after winning the 2006 Council competition, the instrument, valued at $5 million, must be returned next year, unless she re-auditions for it. “This really made a huge difference in my playing. I am able to express better and sing better with this beautiful instrument,” she says, adding that it’s like a member of her family. “I call it Mr. Bonjour. It’s a real baby.”


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