MARLBORO, Vt. -- As violin and woodwind music swells behind her, HyunahYu, one of America's fastest-rising classical vocalists, sits in a simplechair at the front of the stage, small hands folded as if in prayer. It's the35th New England Bach Festival, and amid the golden splendors of fall in ruralVermont, five solo vocalists are among 100 musicians who will give voice, overthe next three hours, to Johann Sebastian Bach's narration of the life, deathand resurrection of Jesus, the Christmas Oratorio.
Critics call the Korean-born Yu, a soprano, a phenomenon on the verge ofinternational renown. In an elegant, full-length black dress, the PeabodyInstitute graduate draws attention even in repose. Her eyes close, eyelidsfluttering as if they're riding on an updraft of sound. "I'm listening toeverything," she later observes. "The music moves me so."
When her turn comes, surrender yields to command. She rises to a heightthat seems grander than her actual 5 feet 3 inches, libretto on one arm,reaching toward the audience of 400, palm skyward, with the other. The smallframe delivers a sound that reverberates through the hall with a startlingpower. "Fear not," she sings, her voice both potent and quavering, the verytimbre of one of Bach's angels. "For behold, I bring you good tidings of greatjoy."
To hear Yu is to discern the sound of rising stardom. "It's not necessaryto know a thing about her past," says a mentor, Peabody director RobertSirota, to know that "you're in the presence of something special" when shetakes the stage. "Even though she is very much a diva, there's a selflessnessto what she does. People respond to that. It's genuine."
Yu knows the awesome power of tragedy and transformation; vivid andfragile, she calls to mind that spirit come to earth. Eyes half-closed, shebegins with a tone in the middle registers, escalating pitch in stages sofinely calibrated it sounds as though she's unfurling a flag on a rising wind.The final, gleaming note -- an oscillating banner of sound -- shimmers, thenyields to silence. She returns to her seat.
Later, she tries to verbalize how she summons the sad and the satisfying,the ancient and the new, and gives them sound. The closest she can come is torecall the words of a speaker at her 1996 graduation, jazz-pop vocalist andclassical conductor Bobby McFerrin. "He told us that, as a performer, you havetwo ways to go," she says after a pause. "There's control, and there'ssurrender. If you lose your technique, you can forget performance. At the sametime, you want to let the music take over, let the moment take you, maybe letsomething happen you didn't prepare.
"It's scary to leave yourself vulnerable," she says, choosing words shemight well have used to describe her own life of triumph and tragedy. "Butthat's what makes live performance so wonderful. I want others to open theirminds and hearts, to feel that I'm just like them when I talk about love,about longing and pain.
"That way, the music can get inside them and do to them the same things ithas done to me."
Yu, 35, didn't always surrender to music, though she can't recall a timewhen it didn't fill her home. Her father, the Rev. David J. Park, aPresbyterian minister in Baltimore, made sure of that. A refugee from northernKorea before the war, he spent so many years living by his wits that he wasnever able to develop his first aesthetic love: classical music. Instead,after assuming leadership of a congregation in Austin, Texas, in 1981, he madeit the soundtrack to the lives of his five children, including Hyunah, hisheadstrong second-born.
To Hyunah (usually pronounced HYUNN-uh or HUNN-uh) Yu, Park is still theman who can do anything -- fix a car, wire a house, solve a dilemma -- all thewhile epitomizing Christian faith by way of the earnest effort he brings towhat he does. "He doesn't do it by following rules," says Yu, "but by livingthe love inherent in the Scriptures as honestly as he can. I see him fall, butwhat matters is I see him really trying." The example has rubbed off on Yu,who says her beliefs radiate in all she sings.
Admiration didn't always mean acquiescence. Park, who sees music as a meansof flooding the world with God's affection, prayed that his children wouldpursue it professionally. His hope combined with what Yu calls a traditionalKorean expectation that women incline toward art to generate what felt likepressure.
Like most American teens, she'd have none of such a plan. Her black-sheepchoice? Medicine. "When I was in high school," she says, "I felt that I had acalling. Not the way you hear a voice, but I heard it and felt it, a mixtureof the two. I actually felt God telling me, 'Be my hands.' And I thought,'Doctors heal people; they are God's hands. That's what I'm going to do.' " Itwas no idle hope. A brilliant pupil, she studied genetics independently inhigh school and earned a molecular biology degree at the University of Texas.
By the late '80s, her plan seemed ready to blossom. As a 20-year-oldsophomore, she met 27-year-old Yeong-Ho Yu, a handsome doctoral student inartificial intelligence whose talents in areas from cooking to sports evokedher father. They bonded profoundly. When a job offer from Boeing's helicopterdivision took Yeong to Philadelphia, Hyunah Yu put her medical aspirations onhold and went along.
"I was so confident then," she says, "not really in such a nice way. I wasa go-getter. A lot of things were about me, me, me. Anything I put my mind to,I could do. I was a diva before I even sang! So foolish."
Yeong didn't seem to mind. He showed her, she says, what it meant to love.They bought a house, joined a Korean Christian church, sang in the choir, madefriends. They had a baby boy, Daniel, who even as an infant looked so muchlike Yeong he seemed a carbon copy. Both adored him. Before long, she'd haveher own career back on track.
Communists had put her father to rout, and he had adapted courageously,without complaint. But that was another time, another place. This was America;she was Hyunah Yu. Things were clear, well defined. Certain.
It happened on Valentine's Day, less than two weeks shy of their secondwedding anniversary. The couple, members of a young-marrieds group in theirchurch, were helping organize an evening service, including a choirperformance.
When the family arrived at Emmanuel Church in downtown Philadelphia, it wasfrigid and dark, though at 6:30 p.m. they were an hour early. Yeong noticedthat 5-month-old Daniel, recovering from a cold, had finally fallen soundasleep in his car seat. He'd stay to watch the boy. "Why don't you go in andpractice, Hyunah?" he said. As she entered the building, she glanced back tosee him in the front of their new Acura Legend, quietly singing from hishymnal.
How strange that the teen-age boys who changed their lives had no criminalbackground, no record of trouble. Good students, both. They lived in ahigh-rise housing project next door. Having seen the steady stream of priceycars in the church lot every Sunday, they decided to take one for themselves.About 6:45, they spotted the perfect target: a gleaming, charcoal-gray importwith tinted windows and the engine running.
Precisely how it happened may never be known. A lone witness saw the boysroughing up Yeong, but didn't see the shooting; at the trial two years later,the boys changed their story many times. But this much is clear: The father'slove for his son cost him his life. They shot Yeong three times point-blank,twice in the heart. When a shaken church member interrupted Yu just before 7p.m. to say that her husband had been harmed, she raced from the building asif in someone else's dream. There in the parking lot, police lights flashed inthe night; emergency radios crackled. Several of the Yus' doctor friendssurrounded Yeong, who lay on the ice-cold pavement, his life slipping away.The car, and the infant, were gone.
Two hours later, a woman watching television heard a baby wailing in thecold outside her home. Police found Daniel near a back-alley dumpster. He wasunharmed -- still strapped into his car seat, covered by a single blanket.
There's a lot Yu can't remember, but friends say madness fell upon thewoman who had been so sure of her invincibility. She cried so much, so often,so uninterruptedly over the next few weeks that friends had to stay with her,around the clock at first, to keep her hydrated. When she found the strengthto sit, she often made sure the adjacent seat was empty. "That is Yeong'splace," she'd say, her black eyes wild. Again and again, she fainted.
She begged God to change his mind. "With you, anything is possible," she'dcry. "You know I need Yeong. When will you bring him back to me?" It wasimpossible now to imagine any sort of life, let alone the grueling path to oneas a doctor. "I couldn't grasp it," she says. "It was bigger than I couldaccept or digest or process or do anything with."
She hoped God was larger than her doubts. Even now it made no sense, shetold herself, to spurn the one who had made her. Was God's job to do herbidding? "He owes me nothing," she says. "Nothing! Yet he lets me know in theBible that he loves me. He gave his only son for me. I felt him sustainingme." The words are as resonant as song.
A decade -- in many ways, a lifetime -- later, she considers an irony shecan neither explain nor deny: Her husband's violent death was her turningpoint. She'd give up in an instant all that has come her way since that snowyevening, if only it would bring him back. But she accepted long ago that thiswas not an option. It was time, instead, to surrender.
"I see everything God has brought to me through this tragedy," she says,both laughing and dabbing tears from her eyes. "I see how faithful he hasbeen. I am so blessed, and I don't even know why. There is no one in the worldluckier than Hyunah."
Maybe it began when her mother, Jeung-Ja Park, and father, then minister ofa large Atlanta congregation, left everything behind, relocated toPhiladelphia, and moved in to support her and Daniel. Perhaps it was when shereturned to those Scriptural passages she'd read since childhood and felt,now, as if they'd been written for her. Or maybe it started when her oldersister called from Baltimore with the invitation that would transform heruniverse. But Yu and God started anew. The young woman who had once resolvedto be his hands felt others reaching out to touch her, offering her a life shecould never have imagined.
Hyun-Sook Park was already a doctoral student in piano at Peabody when herbrother-in-law was killed. And when she called to urge her younger sister toaudition as a singing student, Yu couldn't summon the common sense to say no.Never mind that Reverend Park's second daughter knew little music theory orhistory, that her experience consisted mostly of solos in church choirs, andthat, if accepted, she'd start as a 25-year-old undergrad among teens. Threemonths after Yeong's death, as she poured her grief into song for a Peabodyadmissions committee, all doubts seemed to vanish. "I tell students they beginperforming the instant they walk onstage," says director Sirota. "And from amusician's viewpoint, it's really only necessary to see this remarkableglowing presence appear and hear this extraordinary sound come out of hermouth. This was absolutely clear the first time I heard her sing." Hyunah Yu-- she kept and keeps the surname -- had given up control, and a calling foundher.
Day after day, as she drove to Baltimore from her home near Philadelphia,she'd speak to Yeong. "In 10 1/2 years, I have [rarely] cried about Yeong infront of anyone," she says. "My family, especially my mother, has sufferedenough over me. But then, I cried like a broken pipe. I loved those drives. Iguess that was time for Hyunah. Little by little, I went through a healingprocess. I started to believe, really understand, that Yeong was gone."
Two years later, life tore at the wound when the murder trial began. On thewitness stand in a Philadelphia courtroom, the law compelled Yu to relive thefirst officially recorded carjacking in the city's history. She finally sawher husband's killers, and it wasn't just blind rage she battled. There wasthe attention of the media, which played up the story, often featuring2-year-old Daniel. There was the staggering course load and a long dailycommute. The terror she had felt after the killing returned. On the verge of"breaking, emotionally, physically, in every way," she concluded it was alltoo much. She couldn't sleep, eat or think.
When Yu says today that she is best described by the word "grateful,"Peabody staff members often top her list of those who merit thanks. In thecompetitive, often cutthroat world of conservatories, the school was an oasisof support. "No one thought I was any different from anybody else then;certainly I didn't," she says. "Peabody owed me nothing. But Peabodyaccommodated itself to me."
She stopped by the office of Emily Frank, the dean of student affairs, oneday with the goal of quitting. No matter how hard she tried, Frank wouldn'tlet her. "She said, 'Hyunah, think about it some more;' 'I can talk to yourprofessors.' 'We can alter the schedule.' I just gave up and did as I wastold."
The trial brought little satisfaction; when the two teens got life withoutparole, it didn't bring Yeong back. But when she graduated, she cried withEmily Frank.
Yu, who now lives with her family in Baltimore, often appears on behalf ofPeabody and Hopkins, rarely missing a chance to sing their praises. Sheconsults with friends and mentors. Among them is William Brody, the Hopkinspresident who attended, with his wife Wendy, nearly all of Yu's studentrecitals. He once rescheduled two days of board meetings so trustees couldwitness "the rare warmth and talent" that their university had shaped.
For Yu, a single Korean word embodies the attitude that Peabody, andHopkins in general, showed her: gwanshin. "There's no equivalent word inEnglish," she says. "It's the kind of love that shows commitment. If you carefor someone, if you have feeling for that person, but don't take the time toshow it in actions, is it really love?"
Brody and Sirota, and other supporters, say that such a special talentwould have found its level without their help. She demurs. "If each personmade just one phone call," says Yu, "it would be an important sacrifice. Thinkhow busy they are! Yet, each has done more.
"It's frustrating," she says, brow furrowed. "I am doing so well now, and Iwould not be here without them. Yet there is nothing I can do for them thatcan repay everything they have done for me. Nothing! Nothing at all."
President Brody sees it differently. The surfeit of talent at Hopkins makeshis stewardship worthwhile, he says, and putting it on display keeps itcoming. Last month, when donors from around the globe met for their annualblack-tie gala, he put Yu in the spotlight. Accompanied by Hyun-Sook, sheended the evening with four stunning songs, including "Widmung," Schumann'sode of gratitude. "What a performance," says Brody. "So heartfelt, sograceful. It reminded us of what we're about at Hopkins. I got letters, callsand e-mails for weeks."
If the response was resounding, what triggered it remains a mystery. Themusic world brims with talented practitioners. What separates a star from therest? "You know it when you see it," says director Sirota. "I can tell youwhat it's not. It's not something you can teach. It's described as charisma,as the ability to communicate, the creative spark. I might call it the sacredin us all."
Maybe John Shirley-Quirk had those qualities in mind five years ago. ThePeabody professor, a renowned bass-baritone, got a call from a venerated musicteacher and conductor in search of talent. Half a century earlier, BlancheHonegger Moyse, a Swiss-born former violin prodigy, had helped found theMarlboro Music Festival, an annual gathering of top-rank concert artists atMarlboro College, near Brattleboro, Vt. Moyse, a Bach specialist, sought asoprano for a production of Bach's St. Matthew Passion.
Moyse, then 89, hadn't heard of Hyunah Yu, but when Shirley-Quirkrecommended her, she put aside piles of audition tapes and drove from NewEngland to meet her at New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
Yu knew the doyenne by reputation. A legendary taskmaster, she brooked nononsense, offered scant praise and expected top-flight performance. Shebrought only her principal flutist, and it nearly floored Yu to learn thatshe'd have to sing Bach's "Aus Liebe," a "horrendously difficult aria, one ofthe most difficult ever written for a soprano." There was no practice and nopiano accompaniment, only the flute -- which drops out altogether in severalplaces.
"I don't think I was nervous, exactly," says Yu, "but I was so focused onjust singing it right. Oratorios are sung with music, not memorized, so I hadmy eyes on the music, but I knew her ear was trained on me." When Yu finished,she heard Moyse say, without a moment's hesitation: "I want you to come workwith me."
"That's all," says Yu, laughing. "Not, 'you have a beautiful voice;' noneof that. It was just, 'I want you to come work with me.' After months andmonths of listening to tapes and auditioning other sopranos, she just said,'OK.' "
In that moment, Yu knew her life had changed. She wept all the way back toBaltimore.
What Moyse had heard was more than a voice. "That is not so rare," she saysin a thick Teutonic accent, speaking from her Brattleboro home. "I heard thislovely soprano, but I also saw a very attractive, intelligent, attentive girl.She listened; she was respectful. So many young sopranos get drunk on talentand do foolish things. They think they are there. But no one is ever there.
"I told her she had far to go, a great deal to do. Then I worked with myflutist for 20 minutes, going over phrasing, to show the precision I demand.She was enthusiastic. This instilled me with confidence. In the time since,she has proved my assessment correct."
Moyse took her to Marlboro that summer, where the eminent pianists RichardGoode and Mitsuko Uchida are artistic directors, attracting master performersand a few exceptional young professionals from around the globe.
The gregarious Yu made an impression, and within two years got the covetedcall to return each year. She sang the St. Matthew Passion with Moyse at NewYork's Metropolitan Museum of Art; connected with her current vocal coach,Benita Valente of Philadelphia; and through her connection to Uchida, wassigned by one of the world's leading concert management agencies, Askonas HoltLtd. of London, which represents the exalted likes of cellist Yo-Yo Ma andconductor Simon Rattle.
Over the past four years, she has won prizes at five international vocalcompetitions in North America and Europe, including the prestigious WalterNaumburg Competition in New York. Her opera and concert career has placed heron stages from Toulouse, France, to Montpelier, Vt., not to mention New York'sCarnegie Hall. This year, she was one of four artists worldwide selected asfellows by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, a new London-based foundation aimed atdeveloping and sustaining the international careers of a select handful ofyoung artists. Her first BBC recordings will be broadcast on Jan. 12.
Yu supporters seem most impressed by that interplay of control andsurrender. Ken Noda, assistant to the director at the New York's MetropolitanOpera, has accompanied vocalists as eminent as opera legend Kathleen Battle,and he says that Yu equals that diva's remarkable discipline, preparation andperfectionism. Randall Scarlata, a baritone with whom she works at Marlboro,says singers train muscles as fervently as athletes do, and that Yu's drivehas helped her develop an instrument of exceptional range, "a fine,light-lyric soprano with a warm middle register and gleaming high notes."
But surrender is an equal part of her musical gwanshin, just as it is inher life. Yu says she has learned from other artists, especially older ones,including her beloved Moyse. She listens to pop artists Faith Hill, Elton Johnand Celine Dion, who lack her vocal training but excel in communicatingemotions. "My voice is not made for pop," she says. "But you can learnsomething from everybody. Everybody!"
Mostly, though, great artists yield to their experiences -- the richer, itseems, the better. The loss of Yeong and her willingness to live life fullysince then seem to transform Yu's art. When Noda played with Battle onspirituals, he often asked himself where her sense of suffering came from. "Italways struck me as very, very deep," he says, "so deep it must have been inher genes many lifetimes ago. I think what happened with [Yu's] husband iswith her and will be forever. You can hear that, too. It is like a halo ofhuman transcendence around and almost hovering above the sound she makes. Callit religion, if you will."
In the slanting natural light of a late afternoon, Jeung-Ja Park, 64,greets guests with a pot of lemon tea. Her grandson Daniel, now 11, takes ongeometry at a kitchen table. In a study off the living room, David Park, also64, ponders a coming sermon. He has started a new Korean congregation in theLoch Raven area; they're still renting space, and there is much to do. Here intheir Baltimore County home, Yu is family member, not diva.
The man who prayed for this career of hers begins to speak of his family.Though God delivered it through events that would have ruined many families,he is far too wise to cling to bitterness. "Blessings come," says the pastor,his dark eyes gleaming, "in ways we don't always understand. Better to begrateful."
His daughter's virtuosity pleases Park. When President Brody played hostfor the family at her black-tie performance, the support gratified the pastor,but he winced in the spotlight. "Music is a joy," he says, "but celebrity canbe confusing. If Hyunah sings to glorify God, I am happy."
If that's the case, he has few worries. The single mother looking overDaniel's shoulder has friends and mentors who keep her grounded. Life on theroad is often lonely; while everyone she meets has good intentions, they cantreat her as if she were precious. "I laugh and talk a lot," she says, "butotherwise, I just want to scream, 'I'm just like everybody else!' "
For now, Daniel is the most important person in her life. Though sheworries she's away too much, the Gilman fifth grader is on his way toattaining her three hopes for him -- that he fear God, find independence andthink of others first. He has played instruments since age 4, recently winninggold medals in Howard County and Maryland state piano competitions, butadvanced work in writing and math suggest a third-generation Renaissance man."He looks so much like his dad I don't need to hang pictures of Yeong aroundthe house," says Yu, "but he's impressive in his own right. Daniel is Daniel."
Though she makes her living on a public stage, Yu finds satisfaction inexchanges that happen, like family conversations, in private. She remembersmost fondly an elderly man who stood in a long line of admirers after aMarlboro concert. When he finally reached the show's star, he pumped her handin gratitude. His wife had died six months before, he said, and until themoment he had heard her perform, he'd been unable to surrender his anger.
"When you were singing, I felt her touch me for the first time," sheremembers him saying, tears filling his eyes. "Now I have hope. Thank you somuch."
Her own well up now, as they did then. "If I have talent, it is a tool Ihave been given," she says. "This is so humbling. My role is not to findstardom. That is too complicated, and in the end brings no satisfaction. It isto develop that talent the best I can. And, as I have often told Daniel,that's all any of us can do. The rest is in God's hands."
Onstage at Marlboro, book of music balanced on her arm, she finishes herpart in the Oratorio. The ultimate tale of transformation, it's a work towhich Yu can give her all. That's doubly true today; this weekend marks thefinal occasion on which her mentor, Blanche Moyse, now 94, will ever conductin the New England Bach Festival that she founded 34 autumns ago, the veryyear in which her young protege was born.
The soprano soars into an upper realm, sweeping Part VI, "The Festival ofthe Epiphany," to its culmination. "What now the terrors of Hell?" singsHyunah Yu. "What can the world and sin do to us, when we rest in Jesu'shands?"
The reds and golds of highest October, visible through windows all aroundher, brighten the New England hills, illuminating stage, occasion and song.How has she ended up at the center of it all? As it has done throughout herlife, beauty reveals itself, it seems, in all that passes away.
In gratitude, she sings.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun