Interview with Violinist Timothy Chooi

September 23, 2019, 12:47 PM · When it comes to performing, it doesn't get much more stressful than playing on the competition stage.

"I think it's one of the most difficult and most uncomfortable situations to be playing violin," said violinist Timothy Chooi, 25. He should know -- he has played in at least a half-dozen international competitions, recently taking top prizes at two of the most prestigious ones, winning first prize in the 2018 Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition in Hannover, Germany and just last spring winning Second Prize in the 2019 Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition in Brussels, Belgium.

"You know that you are being judged and ranked and assessed, with an actual result," Chooi said. "It's different when you play in a concert -- people have opinions, they may not like a performance or they may love a performance -- it's a result, but it's not a definitive result. In a competition, everyone is applying to win something. Unconsciously, no matter how much you try to put that away in your mind, it does creep up on you all the time."

Timothy Chooi
Violinist Timothy Chooi. Photo by Den Sweeney.

And no matter how much you push yourself and prepare yourself, practicing for months on a daily basis, everything hinges on how you perform on one specific day. "It really all depends on that day, that time, the way your body is feeling exactly at that moment," Chooi said. "Many of those situations are uncontrollable." You might be sick that day, or the stage lights might make you very hot, or the hall could be very cold.

"The idea is to play technically perfect, of course," Chooi said, "but I've learned over the years and over many competitions, that if we focus on playing perfectly, technically, that's how it sounds also: playing perfectly, technically."

"As I have grown older, my plan of approach for competitions has changed," he said. While technical perfection is important, there is something perhaps even more important: one's voice. For that reason, Chooi now chooses his competition repertoire based on what will allow him to bring forth his own musical voice.

Following his competition successes, Chooi has been keeping a busy concert schedule this fall, with upcoming debuts at the Tyrolean Festival in Austria; the Schleswig-Holstein Symphony Orchestra in Germany; the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Canada; as well as a recital at the Hannover Kammermusik Series in Germany.

Chooi has been playing the violin since he was three years old, when he started in a Suzuki program with Esther Tsang at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, in his native Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

"Much of it was inspired by my brother, who also is a violinist," Chooi said. You may have heard of his brother, Nikki Chooi, who performs as a soloist, was a member of Time for Three for several years and who served recently as concertmaster of the MET Orchestra in New York. "Being five years older than I was, Nikki had started the violin already when I was born. Seeing that had a huge impact on my starting a musical instrument -- that's really how I started, very casually, as a hobby."

From an early age, the two of them have played together, and recently they even toured as The Chooi Brothers.

"When we were very young we studied with the same teachers and we both did Suzuki," Chooi said. "We played a lot together until I was 12 years old, and then my brother started to pursue his musical studies much more seriously and got very busy with high school." They didn't play together for a while -- until they played for Nikki's graduation recital from the Curtis Institute of Music. "That was in 2012, when I was beginning my own studies at Curtis. We were both at the same school again, and so why not play together? It's so fun to play with another family member. So we started playing a lot more with each other."

It didn't take them long to get through the usual repertoire for two violins: the Bach Double; the Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 56 by Prokofiev; the Suite for Two Violins and Piano, Op. 71 by Moszkowski; the Five Pieces for Two Violins and Piano by Shostakovich; and the Concerto for Two Violins in A minor by Vivaldi.

"The repertoire for two violins and orchestra or piano is really quite limited!" Timothy said. "So we actually started developing some very interesting repertoire for two violins."

They started by creating some arrangements.

"We took Czardas and we started arranging that for two violins and orchestra, and it worked really well," Timothy said. They also arranged a few other pieces, including Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Then with some help from a donor, they commissioned composer Sheridan Seyfried to write a Double Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra, which they premiered at the Lake George Music Festival Orchestra in the summer of 2017. Sheridan also went to Curtis around the same time as the Chooi brothers.

"We have some plans to perform the piece in upcoming seasons," Chooi said. "It's quite fun. The nice thing about working with composers we know is that they know our personalities, and so they have our personalities in mind in the way that they write the piece. It's interesting for both of us to know what someone else thinks of our playing and what our strengths are, and how they write to embrace those strengths."

Is it easy to work with your brother, or does that make it more difficult?

"When I was younger, he was more the professor, when it came to the relationship between me and my brother!" Chooi said, laughing."He would always tell me what to do -- And it still happens! But at this point we've gained different experiences, and I think we're at a stage where we can respect each other's decisions and we can respect each other's views and perspectives."

Playing together is a way to grow their sibling relationship. "As brothers and family members, we know that we both have the best intentions for each other all the time." When it comes to being honest, they don't have the same kind of barriers that one might have with a non-family member. They also have a high level of trust. "He's always really honest with me; when he gives me constructive criticism it's always from a place of love and a place where he really wants me to be better," Chooi said. "And when I have something that I want to tell him, I don't feel this barrier, that I can't really tell him what I don't like or what is not working. So in that sense I think that's very different, compared to other players, especially in collaborations."

"There was never a direct line of competition between us," Chooi said. "We're five years apart, and I think that helps. That meant that he could do whatever auditions or competitions first, and then I would do it five years later."

What did their parents think of all this?

"I think they are a little bit overwhelmed by the scope of what it takes to become a classical musician," Chooi said. His dad works in computer software, and his mom worked in mathematics before becoming a full-time mom. "They themselves are not classical musicians, they had no experience with it. They started us as a pure hobby, something for us to work hard at and put our energy into. Now having two classical musicians in the family, they're still trying to understand how the entire system works. It's very different from most other fields. A lot of non-classical musicians probably don't understand the way you have to start when you are probably under the age of six, in order to be anywhere by the time you are in your 20s; the amount of practice it takes every day; the type of auditions that we have to endure and also just the unseen amount of energy it takes to prepare for one concert."

* * *

Chooi was 16 when he went to Philadelphia to study with Ida Kavafian at the Curtis Institute of Music. He also studied with Pamela Frank at Curtis, and he is currently enrolled in the Artist Diploma program at the Juilliard School, studying with Catherine Cho.

Another one of Timothy's important mentors -- from early on -- has been the Israeli-American violinist Pinchas Zukerman.

"The very first time I met Mr. Zukerman was when I was nine," Chooi said. "He came to my town in Victoria, and I met him at a reception. My brother was supposed to play in his master class the next morning, and Mr. Zukerman came up to me and said, 'Do you play the violin also?' I said, 'Yes,' and he said, 'Well, you're going to come play in the master class tomorrow morning first.' I didn't expect that! So I've been a student of his -- in a very broad sense -- since I was nine."

It was with Zukerman that Chooi first started learning the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto -- the piece he played in the finals, right before being named the First Prize winner in the 2018 Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition, as well as in the 2019 Queen Elisabeth Competition. (Chooi's performance in the QE is shown below, with the Belgian National Orchestra, Hugh Wolff conducting).

"I started learning the concerto at age 17, with Mr. Pinchas Zukerman, at the National Arts Center Summer Academy in Ottawa, Canada," Chooi said. It was his first year attending the Academy's senior program, and after playing the Sibelius concerto for the entire previous year, he was ready to learn something new -- to start tackling some of the other major pieces in the violin repertoire. Specifically: he wanted to learn the Tchaikovsky. "I brought it to my lesson -- I had the whole thing ready to play for him," Chooi said. "Then he worked on the first line -- for the entire lesson!"

Over the summer he had about six lessons, "and so we got to about six lines!" He laughed. But Chooi appreciated that level of depth. "That was the first concerto I really studied with Mr. Zukerman. I learned so many things from him -- he really taught me how to play the violin. He taught me how the violin works, how the instrument best speaks. He taught me how to be relaxed and efficient while playing and how to choose fingerings. He taught me vibrato, posture -- all those things that you learn while you are in Suzuki but often you don't ever revisit. I feel like I really learned the basics at an older age, which I think is fantastic."

Ida Kavafian -- his teacher for seven years at Curtis -- pushed Chooi to learn a lot of repertoire, and to do it faster.

"When I first came to Curtis, I didn't know that studio class meant that you have to play the entire Mendelssohn Concerto," Chooi said. "I thought the first movement would be a lot already but no, in studio class you played the entire concerto, the entire work. And we had to have it memorized!"

"I was slow learner before, so for me, learning a concerto took maybe a year," Chooi said. "But coming to Curtis, I had to work hard and get it ready in four months or less."

He also had to play it in front of his fellow violinists. "Playing in front of your peers -- it's slightly less uncomfortable than playing in a competition, but it's still very uncomfortable!" Chooi said. "You know that everybody in the studio class knows the piece you are playing, and they are very high-level musicians. You feel like everything you play is being judged. But that was fantastic training; it built my confidence, it built my stamina, and it raised my expectations for myself -- I was able to do things that I didn't know I could do before. "

Chooi also studied several years with Pamela Frank, and "that was a fantastic experience because she opened my mind. She focuses on the music, the score, getting into the composer's mind. She does not allow technique to be the focus of the music. That's when I noticed that if you focus on the intonation, that's what the audience will focus on as well. I really learned that concept with Pam. It was very short, I wish I could have studied with her longer, but I'm very lucky I had those two years."

Studying with Catherine Cho at The Juilliard School for his masters degree, Chooi said he has been inspired by her optimism and mental stability through the most stressful situations.

"I don't know how she does this, but she always smiles, no matter how stressful the situation can be," Chooi said. Keeping things in perspective is extremely important, and that is another thing he is learning from Cho. "Music is music, in the end. It's very important to me and it's a big part of my life, but also it's not the only thing in my life. There are many things that are equally important, and those things will change as I get older. But music is something that we work hard for, but we don't have to take ourselves so seriously, but rather we can put that into our work. You need to let go, and that's what I'm really learning from her."

Chooi has been able to play on some very fine violins during the early years of his career, and for that he thanks the Canada Council for the Arts. Currently he plays the 1717 "Windsor-Weinstein" Stradivarius.

"The Canada Council has been a big supporter of almost every single musical organization across Canada, everything from the smallest recital series up to the Toronto Symphony, the Montreal Symphony -- they help fund each of these organizations," Chooi said. The Canada Council's Musical Instrument Bank allows young musicians to apply for the loan of fine musical instruments from the Canadian government. Winners of the instrument loans can use the instrument for a period of three years, and then they can renew the loan by auditioning again. A young artist can borrow an instrument for up to three terms, for a total of nine years.

"This is my third term," said Chooi, who was named an Instrument Bank recipient for the third time in 2018. "The very first time I won an instrument from the Canada Council, it was a Guarneri del Gesù made in 1729, which my brother actually got three years before me. It was sort of a hand-me-down -- a very nice hand-me-down!"

When he won another term in 2015, Chooi wanted to try a different instrument, and he chose a Stradivarius. In 2018, "I had the choice of many other instruments, but I wanted to keep the Stradivarius. So I was able to keep the same instrument, to play on it for another three years. I really had a fantastic journey with it, and I knew that was an instrument that really fits with my playing and with me, in terms of chemistry. So it will be six years on this instrument."

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September 24, 2019 at 02:33 PM · Thank you for this interview! It's great to learn about Timothy.

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