Dawn Wohn: Violinist

Posted on December 9, 2010

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December 9, 2010

Photo Credit: Ansa Varughese

Dawn Dongeun Wohn’s pale skin stands out against the red chiffon dress that extends from her neck to touch the floor of the recital hall in Sony Brook University’s Staller Center.  The diamond-crested headband matches an equally dazzling design along the waist of the dress and sweeps back her jet-black hair.

On this day she has her recital, a requirement for her music doctorate.

“I’m so nervous,” she whispers to her friend in the vacant hall that looks more like an amphitheater.  Wohn’s friend says something in Korean as she connects a tripod to a camcorder with difficulty and forces it to stand between two tight rows.

Ellen Hwangbo, a former housemate and the pianist accompanying Wohn, mimics the Steinway in the middle of the stage—her black dress the same color as the piano.  Her chestnut hair tied in a bun bounces with the rippling notes as she runs her fingers along the keys.  Wohn wanted Hwangbo to rehearse with her tonight and she was too nice to say no when Wohn asked her to be the accompanist.

After a few minutes of practicing, Wohn and Hwangbo walk off the stage to the back door and left it ajar.  One could hear Wohn’s heels as she slowly paced back and forth.

“Can I get the code for the recorder?” Hwangbo hollers from the back.  Wohn’s friend gives the code.  The back-row seats of the hall are starting to become occupied.

It was time.  Wohn returns back to the front of the stage and swings her violin up towards her neck to place her jaw on the chin rest.  She takes a breath, presses the fingers of her left hand against the strings and rocks them back and forth on the neck of her violin in an action known as vibrato.  Her right hand delicately holds the bow and she pulls it smoothly across the strings in a slow motion, releasing the soft sound of three simultaneous notes.

She plays the opening to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonata Number One in G Minor, Adagio on her antique Italian violin, which she bought from a London dealer in New York and dates back to 1770.  She continues playing and smiling with her eyes closed, her eyebrows lifting with every high note.

***

The stage of the recital hall is made of softwood flooring and the walls are polished and golden.  The lights and wires tangle together like a web on the ceiling and are revealed for all to see, but tonight no one is looking up.  Their eyes are fixed on Wohn as she and Hwangbo walk back on stage for her second performance.

They bow in unison and as soon as the Hwangbo sits down, Wohn gives the cue—a high note that sounds like it could be the zenith of the violin.  Lento e liberamente ritmato is the name of this movement, which means slow and rhythmic freedom in Italian.  Hwangbo responds with a slight upward motion of her arms and bounces notes on the keys.  After another sudden climactic high note, it slows to a beautiful airy sound.

Wohn’s finale is a four-page score sheet of Beethoven’s sonata sitting on a stand that is only half its length.  It resonates to the complexity of in the dark notes that stretch across the sheets.  Wohn maneuvers her bow and fingers to match the fast movement of Hwangbo’s fingers.  It is a conversation between the violin and the piano.

Some members of the audience hold tightly to the arms of their seats as they anticipate the end of the performance.  The rhythm of the violin grows faster like an oncoming train and the piano sounds like an alarm in the background.

The combination is powerful enough to make heads bob to the final three notes.

All 12 members of the audience stand, clap and cheer for Wohn like they were watching a philharmonic performance.  Wohn holds the violin out, bows and smiles.  As she walks off the stage she embraces the violin like a prized possession and tucks it just behind her right arm to reveal its beautiful sheen.

***

“I really didn’t want to do it that day,” Wohn says later about the recital with a mocking laugh, “but my teacher was really busy, that was the only day he was going to be in town within the time frame I wanted to do.”

“It’s easier to perform when there are actually people there,” she explains.  “If you have friends you ask them to come and watch you.  If my friends are playing I’ll definitely go and watch them play.  Most of my friends were able to.  It was really nice.”

Although nothing went terribly wrong, Wohn didn’t feel great about the performance, but she was happy it was over.  Her final performance is right before her graduation.

It’s been seven years since she completed her undergraduate studies on a full-scholarship with Dorothy Delay and Hyo Kang, both world-renown violinists, at Juilliard Music School.  She received her Master Artists diploma from Yale University under the study of Syoko Aki, also known internationally.

Stony Brook is not an Ivy League school, but Wohn’s decision to come here for the doctoral program was solely to play her violin.   She wanted to make sure she has enough time to be physically playing and to study with her teacher, who is a member of the Emerson String Quartet.

An equally important decision occurred this past April when she changed her violin.  The relationship between Wohn and her violin is a personal one.  She said some people go through several instruments until they find the right one.

“You always want to find an instrument that’s going to help you in every way, that’s actually going to accentuate the way you play, kind of opposite of you.  It covers your bad habits,” she says.

Wohn had her past violin since middle school, but she outgrew it.

“I wanted something with a bigger sound, something more robust.  I found this one.”

The violin has no special maker or character, other than it’s nearly a quarter century old.  Wohn’s feat is dissenting to the common rep that a Stradivarius is the pinnacle of violins.

Her decision to commute from Manhattan to campus was also a matter of convenience.  She doesn’t have to come that often.  Wohn mainly teaches and when she’s not teaching, her chamber ensemble performs for various events.

Her chamber music is just as personal as solo music.

“[It] adds the process of working together and sharing ideas, and deciding on one musical vision with other people, which can be frustrating,” she says, “but rewarding.”

Wohn was born in College Park, Maryland and started playing the violin at the age of four.  A year later she had her first solo recital.  Since then, she has participated in numerous competitions like the Music Journal and The Korean Daily Times competition and won many awards including Julliard String Honors and the Korean Young Musicians’ Award.

She grew up in New Jersey, South Korea and New York.  Her parents, from South Korea, lived in America for 20 years but moved back.  Wohn says she doesn’t visit Korea as often as she would like to, but gets to go when she has a concert there.

She also has an older sister, Yvette Wohn, a 31 year-old media entrepreneur-turned-journalist and now a PhD student who studies social networks like Facebook.  Although Yvette lives in Michigan, she still talks to Wohn about once a month.  Yvette remembers when she was younger and played the piano, Wohn was exposed to music at a very early age.

“I’m not sure about the exact story,” said Yvette, “but I think she saw a young student playing the violin at one of the student group recitals and although she was extremely young, four, she begged to learn how to play the violin.”

“I think that was the difference between Dawn and I.  From the very beginning Dawn really wanted to be a violinist.  Her violin was this teeny tiny instrument and since none of our family had musical background, we were all very fascinated.”

Wohn performed as a soloist with the Korean Broadcasting Symphony, KBS, live on national radio and with the Taejon City Philharmonic, which was broadcasted on KBS TV.

Korea has a fandom for classical music similar to Lady Gaga’s Twitter followers.

“One thing I always noticed is that the audience is always younger in Korea, a lot more people go to concerts, which always kind of surprises me,” Wohn says.  “Here I always see older people.  That’s the main difference.”

***

Wohn completed the second of the four required recitals.  It happened to take place on her 27th birthday.

Backstage, her 11 friends and teacher who attended the recital put together a mini birthday gathering for her.   A friend places a pink fluff tiara on her head.  Wohn smiles and everyone draws closer to serenade her with a musical classic, “Happy Birthday,” they sing, “Happy Birthday, Dear Dawn…”

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