Livia Sohn:  She’s Got the World on Her Strings

She's Got the World on Her Strings: Violinist Livia Sohn Performs with the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, February 6 and 7

Written by Mike Schulz, River Cities' Reader

Livia Sohn, the featured soloist for the Quad City Symphony Orchestra’s forthcoming Masterworks: Song & Dance concerts, began playing the violin at age five. Maybe.

“That’s what they tell me,” says Sohn with a laugh. “I think it was earlier than that, because I have no memory of not playing, and I feel like you remember stuff that happened before you were five.”

She does, however, vividly remember her first professional engagement, which took place when Sohn was the ripe old age of eight.

“I played [Camille] Saint-Saëns’ Introduction et rondo capriccioso with an orchestra in Connecticut, and they put me last on the program. The concert started at eight, and it was about 9:30, and I was supposed to go on at 9:45. And I was so tired. So I fell asleep backstage.”

Laughing again, Sohn says, “One of the conductors had to wake me up, and he brought me out on stage and said, ‘Well, she’s not gonna make it to 10 o’clock, so she’s gonna play now.’” But Sohn’s sleepiness, she adds, didn’t negatively affect her performance. “I made it through. I think the adrenaline kicked in.”

With her résumé boasting appearances with more than 70 orchestras on five continents, Sohn’s concert-goers have likely felt that same sort of rush time and time again. To be sure, reviewers have. Music periodical The Strad, for example, praised Sohn for her “remarkably lithe and transparent tone of exceptional purity,” and NYConcertReview.com raved about the artist’s “heated exuberance and heartfelt musicality,” calling her “a bona fide virtuoso and a stylistically sophisticated interpreter.”

Area audiences, meanwhile, will feel that blast of musical energy when Sohn – who last played alongside the orchestra in 1999 – performs Samuel Barber’s famed, 20-minute Violin Concerto at the Adler Theatre on February 6 and Augustana College’s Centennial Hall on February 7. She won’t, however, be performing with the ensemble in the Grieg and Beethoven pieces that complete the program, and consequently says the one thing I don’t quite believe in the whole of our recent interview: “I’ll be working the least hard of anyone on stage.”

So Much to Learn

Born in New York, raised in Connecticut, and currently living in Portola Valley, California, Sohn says that music was in her blood even before she picked up the violin at age five-or-under.

“My mom was a cellist,” she says, “and she actually went to New England Conservatory. She came from Korea to study with Bernard Greenhouse, and her entire side of the family were musicians. My aunt is actually a very famous teacher in Korea. She’s like the go-to person.”

But genetics aside, Sohn says that she can’t recall a time when she wasn’t fascinated by the violin. “I can’t explain it,” she says, “but even when I was five, it wasn’t something I did that I was forced to do. It was always something very serious in my mind. I mean, I liked the sound. But I also liked that it wasn’t easy. It was the challenge I liked.

“And it’s still that way today,” she continues. “I’ve been playing for many decades, and there’s still so much to learn. This is something that I’ve done all my life. I know it better than anything else in the world. I can do this better than anything else. But it’s a difficult instrument, and there’s a lot of repertoire, and there are always things you can be better at and more knowledgeable about.

“So I think, from the beginning, I liked that it wasn’t something you could conquer immediately. You had to put a lot of work into it. And once you get past that hump of just sounding like a cat dying – because the violin, when you start, is pretty brutal – it’s pretty exciting. Little by little, you see progress, and it sort of motivates you.”

Sohn was so musically motivated as a youth, and so naturally gifted, that she was accepted into the Juilliard Pre-College Division at age seven, and began studying under renowned violin instructors including Dorothy DeLay and Hyo Kang.

“At the time, it was just me and one other boy,” she says of entering the program at such a young age. “Nowadays, I think there are probably many little girls running around there. But that does seem really young. I have a nine-year-old son, and I can’t imagine him doing something like that.”

As a child, says Sohn, playing violin “was something I always knew I would do professionally. But that was before I understood what it really entailed. And once I did, you know, I was like, ‘Hmmm ... maybe not.’”

With a laugh, she says, “I mean, by the time I was 15, I was one of the lucky ones – I already had a manager, and was already out playing concerts. But doing it professionally is really difficult, and it’s really competitive, and so I had a period right before college where I was like, ‘Maybe I want to do something else instead.’ I wanted to go to a quote-unquote ‘normal’ college – like a party school with frats and sororities.

“But the more I thought about it, I was like, ‘Maybe that would be fun for half a year. But this [the violin] is more my calling.’” Sohn instead chose to continue her studies at Juilliard, from which she graduated in 1998. “I think I made the right decision.”

Guadagnini and Zygmuntowicz

A list of the revered conductors she’s played for, esteemed venues and festivals she’s appeared at, and many cities and countries Sohn has visited would entail many hundreds of words. But the artist is incredibly succinct, and funny, when revealing how she determines favorite performance sites: “Usually they’re based on food.” (Laughing, she adds, “I mean, Italy is amazing. I did a tour there last year, and you can go into any place, even what looks like a hole in the wall, and they will have good food. It’s incredible.”)

Wherever she performs, she brings along one of two violins – her 1770 J.B. Guadagnini or her 2006 Samuel Zygmuntowicz – depending on the nature of her repertoire and locale.

“This is a pretty major argument amongst concert-goers and musicians,” says Sohn of the perceived differences in the violins’ sound quality. “I’m on the side that thinks that if somebody didn’t tell you that one instrument was 400 years older than the other one, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I think a lot of it is in people’s heads, and they want to romanticize things. Some of these modern instruments – and I’m lucky enough to have one – are made so incredibly well these days.

“That being said,” she continues, “I pulled out my Guadagnini the other day, and there is a shimmery quality to it that’s maybe lacking in my modern one. But my modern one also has a more pinpointed loud – a louder sound, basically. You get certain things from one and certain things from another, and it’s good to have both.

“Like, I’m recording Brahms trios this coming fall, and the cellist in my group has a 1710 Gagliano, so for that, I’ll probably use my Guadagnini. But if I have to cut through an orchestra, generally I’ll take my Zygmuntowicz. And if I’m going to cold climates, I’ll leave my Guad at home just for safety.” She laughs. “I don’t want it cracking on me.”

It’s a safe guess, then, that Sohn will bring along the Zygmuntowicz for her early-February concerts in the Quad Cities, and the artist says she’s excited to perform Barber’s Violin Concerto, a composition that she describes as “so great. So great. But a bit odd.

“It’s strange,” she explains, “because the three movements sound kind of like two pieces. The last movement is really virtuosic, like a moto perpetuo – you start running and running and you get to the end. Which is really different from the first two movements, which are very lush, romantic, heart-on-your-sleeve. And it starts immediately with the violin playing the tune. There’s no introduction or anything – it’s just immediately out there. I kind of like that, and I like the dichotomy of the two characters. And it’s super-fun to play.”

Following Sohn’s Quad Cities concerts, she’ll return to her California stomping grounds, where she’s on the faculty of Stanford University’s music department, and where she lives with husband Geoff Nuttall – himself a Stanford faculty member and professional violinist. You’d be mistaken, though, if you imagined their time together a nonstop series of “dueling banjos” for violins.

Sohn says, “There’s not a lot of repertoire” for two violins, “and he’s also in a string quartet. The summertime is generally when we get to play together the most – we’ll go to certain festivals and sometimes be put in a group together. But I like playing with him. We’re very different players, so it’s always a new perspective.”

And which spouse is the better player?

“You know,” says Sohn with a laugh, cagily evading the question, “we often say that if we combined our playing, we would be, like, a really supreme violinist.”

Livia Sohn performs in the Quad City Symphony Orchestra’s Masterworks IV: Song & Dance concerts at the Adler Theatre (136 East Third Street, Davenport) on Saturday, February 6, at 8 p.m., and at Augustana College’s Centennial Hall (3703 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island) on Sunday, February 7, at 2 p.m. For tickets and information, call (563)322-7276 or visit QCSO.org.

For more information on the artist, visit LiviaSohn.com.