Clarinetist Seunghee LeeÔÇÖs Musical Odyssey | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine | April 2016 |

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

“I’ve gone from competitive to compassionate,” acclaimed clarinetist Seunghee Lee says simply.  When I was young it was all about winning competitions and pushing myself always to do better than I had done yesterday. I felt that I needed to prove again and again my musical abilities. And by doing that, I was getting in the way of the music and not letting it flow through
me. By taking some time off, I was able to realize what it is I really want in life.”  And what is that goal now? “My goal is to bring comfort and healing to those who may be suffering silently as victims of tragic violence. And with music, I have the perfect tool to do that.”


Korean-American, international soloist and recording artist, Seunghee Lee’s career and her own personal journey have proved to be voyages of self-discovery. Her latest CD, entitled Solace, which is due to be released on March 28, 2016, marks a watershed moment in these professional and emotional
“travels.” The date, the repertoire, and the inspiration for this, her fourth solo clarinet recording, holds special significance in her life. It is dedicated to her deceased father on the 25th anniversary of his death. His and her family’s story, as she tells it, has been a burden she has carried with her all these years and a tale which, she feels resonates with countless other people who have experienced the same tragedy.

“On March 28, 1991, on the South Side of Chicago, a dissatisfied customer, armed with a gun, shot the owner of a coin laundry store.  The owner died instantly by a single bullet – a bullet so powerful that it not only killed the innocent, hardworking man, but t italso destroyed the happiness of his wife and their five young children, now left alone for the years to come. This single bullet remained deeply buried in the hearts of his family to this day. The shop owner was my father.
His name was Kyungho Lee.”

Seunghee Lee, at the time of her father’s death had been a music student on full scholarship in her first year of graduate school at Yale. “The whole deck of cards came down,” she
recalls. “When I got back to Yale after the funeral, I felt lost and confused, and I think the only thing I could do to stop feeling helpless was to practice harder and harder in an effort to make it in the world and to repay my parents’ sacrifices.” The pressure she put on herself in terms of expectations, competitions and her early career was, no doubt intensified by the fact that Kyungho Lee had been her first clarinet teacher.

Despite many early professional successes, a happy marriage and motherhood, some time off for parenting, and her recent return to recording and performing, Seunghee Lee has felt that she, like so many other victims of gun violence worldwide, has carried within herself the heavy burden of grief. The idea to create a musical expression of that grief, to share the pain and to find solace for herself and others prompted this latest recording.


“The idea came to me when I knew my husband and I were moving back to the States (from Hong Kong) last year. When we came back it seemed that nothing had changed for the better in America in terms of gun violence in all the time since my father’s death. Almost every day, I would turn on the news and hear about terrible mass shootings. I felt I couldn’t be silent any longer.”

On the twenty-fourth anniversary of her father’s death, Lee put up a Facebook post sharing her story. “I was astounded by the number of responses I received. I had not shared this experience before even with my friends. To them I was “Sunny” (her nickname); they did not know how depressed I was deep inside. And it came to me, ‘All these years, I’ve been pretending everything was okay when it wasn’t. I have not been sharing my real self with my friends.’ I decided I wanted to do something to honor the 25th anniversary of my father’s passing and something that would make a statement about this kind of senseless tragedy.”

To Lee speaking out after long years of carefully guarded silence was the task she set for herself, and quite naturally, it was through music that she chose to deliver her message. “All of us victims must speak out, not go into hiding and try to make sense of it by oneself. We should realize each of us can make an impact on the issue and on the lives of the victims. The internet is a powerful tool to reach others, and music has the power to bring comfort.”


Lee chose the repertoire for Solace with the intent of letting music reflect and express the stages of grief, to give voice to the desolation, to share the pain, and by doing so to help bring closure to her decades of silent suffering by paying special tribute to her father. As with each of her earlier CDs, she has consciously tried to expand the solo clarinet repertoire, and in this case, she plays transcriptions (from strings, voice, for example) on the clarinet with the piano partnering of Evan Solomon.

“I asked myself what music would make a difference in people’s hearts. solace1To me, composers are like angel-mediators between God and man. Music is the sound of their mediation, and from that sound we make language; we fashion our own interpretation of the music and let it speak to and for us.”  In programming the album, Lee says, “ I started with just two melodies: “Danny Boy” and the Korean song, “Gagopa,” which was my father’s favorite song. Little by little I came up with a selection that is both familiar and less well-known.”

The recording opens with Maurice Ravel’s “Kaddish,” which Lee feels is the perfect introduction to her theme. The Hebrew chant of the Kaddish is “all about honoring God no matter what happens. It is about surrender to the Almighty in all circumstances.” It is for Lee, music which is about letting go, about remembering that man is infinitesimal in the scope of the entire universe.  Other melodies she chose were drawn from works she heard and played at an early age, such as the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria,” or Mozart’s “Lacrymosa” from his Requiem.  Some, however, were works Lee discovered as she assembled the disc, like the touching “L’Adieu” by Ernesto Cortazar, created, she feels, from the composer’s own grief at the loss of both his parents in an auto accident when he was a child or Villa-Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” which reminds Lee that “I must choose to cease my sadness and mournful complaining and choose to see the beauty in the great splendor of life from above.” In addition to “Gagopa,” Dong-Jin Kim’s beloved Korean art song, whose title translates as “Wishing to Return,” Lee has programmed “The Story of Ups and Downs,” from a musical by Hong Kong composer Lee Hin. And to this contemporary Asian song, she adds the timeless Great American Songbook favorite, Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.” The collection concludes with Bach’s “Sleepers Awake,” bringing full circle the grief of “Kaddish” to the hope that we can awake to new life.

Exquisitely performed with Seunghee Lee’s signature musicianship, seamless phrasing, and lush mastery of tone, Solace shepherds the listener gently and tenderly through the complex emotions which accompany loss. It is impossible to resist the beauty in the music and in the playing, at the same time that one realizes that this beauty is often synonymous with pain. For Lee the experience has been liberating, and she hopes it will prove so for her listeners.

The clarinetist finds herself re-energized in recent years. Her own hard-fought struggle with perfectionism is a tale she has told often in the past, recounting how for a period of time, the impossible standards she set for herself became crippling, robbing her of her joy in music making.  Slowly, over the years, after giving up performing for a while, she found her way out of the abyss of these demons.  PHOTO-3-SUNNYGOLF-crOne of the activities which helped her reassess her thinking was golf, which she took up avidly in her decade in Hong Kong, earning a name for herself in the sport under the sobriquet of Sunny Kang. She describes her epiphany this way:“In golf you don’t always have to be perfect as long as you get the ball in the hole, and there are many different ways to do that. The game is really about what is happening now, being in the moment and not thinking about the shots you messed up previously. Par is par no matter how you get the ball into the hole. And when I realized that I can apply the same concept to music, I asked myself, ‘What is my par in music?’ From that moment, I have reconstructed and recreated how I relate to music.”

Lee defines her musical par: “I believe I am an instrument myself, and if I can bring peace and harmony to people through music, that would be my par! When there are lows in your life, music consoles you and inspires you. In this second half of my life, I want to make sure that I do everything possible to contribute to others through the talent I was given.”

Toward this end Lee has not only produced her four CDs,
Brava, Hidden Treasures, PHOTO-4-HIDDENTREASURES-crEmbrace, and now Solace, but she has devoted quite a bit of her time to organizing and performing in charity concerts.  Last May before returning to the U.S. she produced and headlined what she calls “a dream concert” in Hong Kong. Concert for a Cause Gala, which benefited five local grassroots charities, among them relief for Cambodian children and fighting human trafficking, featured Lee as the soloist in a full length benefit concert with the music of celebrated Italian film composer, Andrea Morricone. For this special event, Maestro Morricone generously wrote special world-premiere arrangements for clarinet and orchestra, among them the Love Theme from Cinema Paradiso, the Godfather by Nino Rota, The Entertainer by Scott Joplin, as well as many other timeless cinematic works (which are all available for viewing in his YouTube Channel).


Now that she is back in New York, living right opposite Carnegie Halland her children now away at school, Lee plans to immerse herself once again in New York’s performing scene.  “I want to perform again more actively in solo recitals and with chamber groups. Solace has given me so much freedom. I feel as if I have cut off my own ball and chain. Why have I been hiding? I practice every day at home. I am no longer stuck on perfectionism. Now, I want to play, and for me, it is all about compassion now. We are all here in this world to help one another, and music can make a huge difference.”

For more information about Seunghee Lee and her music, visit www.seungheeclarinet.comSolace was released on
March 28, 2016.

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold |

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold's new book is Bookends (Weiala Press). Her reviews, interviews, and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. Read her Blog.
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