Meet the two Sydney grads who are making it at Juilliard and Yale

This article by Jeffrey Palmer was published in Australian music magazine CutCommon on 1 August 2019. To see the article in full, click here.

Pianist Alexander Yau and Violinist Ye Jin Min

Pianist Alexander Yau and Violinist Ye Jin Min

Violinist Ye Jin Min and pianist Alexander Yau are two very talented young Australian musicians – and they’re making their way as students at two of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the United States.

About to embark on a short tour of Australia, it was a pleasure to speak to them about their musical collaboration and goals for the future.

Ye Jin and Alex, congratulations on your upcoming tour of Australia! Can you tell us a little about how your collaboration began?

ALEX: Ye Jin and I first collaborated at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in a piano quintet. Ye Jin was the first violin, and I was added to the group for a chamber music tour/summer school in Verona called ESTIVO. We played the Franck Piano Quintet in F minor together. A few days later, we began playing more duets together for fun. 

YE JIN: Alex and I enjoyed playing chamber music back in Sydney. Alex is a passionate chamber musician who loves socialising through chamber music, similarly to [common practice] back in Schubert’s day. Last year, when Alex was visiting New York and Yale for auditions, we planned to meet for coffee. Alex suggested: ‘Coffee is boring. Why don’t we just sight-read the Strauss sonata?’ We spent two hours sight-reading sonatas and sight-singing some arias! When we found out we were both back in Sydney for the break, we decided to organise some duo recitals to share some of our favourite repertoire with audiences.

Pianist Alex Yau was accepted into The Juilliard School.

You were accepted into extremely prestigious music courses at the Yale School of Music and The Juilliard School, respectively. How did you make the decision to move to the United States, and what attracted you to these institutions?

YJ: Apart from a full scholarship/fellowship and good faculty, I was attracted to Yale because of the diversity of courses offered. I was always interested in learning more about music and other subjects. I particularly enjoyed classes by composition faculty Martin Bresnick and Hannah Lash. I also took composition lessons, and singing and harp as secondary instruments. Yale also offers a very good language program, where I learnt German and spent a summer in Tubingen with a study award as part of the Baden-Württemberg Exchange Program. 

A: For me, I always wanted to study in a prestigious school like Juilliard, where all the students are extremely devoted to their music and striving to the best. Their enthusiasm inspires me to be a better musician myself. One of the quickest learning tools in music is to simply listen to others and be inspired. After my Masters, I would like to move to Germany to experience more of the cultural aspect of classical music, and learn from European professors.

How do you think your experience as Australian classical musicians has shaped you into the artists you are today and will continue to become during your studies in the American Northeast?

A: I have to say, I feel extremely lucky to have grown up in Australia. This is mainly because the environment is very easy-going, which allows us to follow our heart. This mindset is great for a child starting music. The hard work we do is rooted in our love and passion for it, and not as a forced routine every day. I always felt passionate about music, which has certainly helped shape me into the artist I am now. 

YJ: I don’t consider myself to be an ambitious or competitive person. I was shy when I was younger and afraid of playing in front of people. So, when I first decided to pursue a degree in music, I wanted to be a good music teacher. During my studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, there were many opportunities for me to perform. As Alex mentioned, the environment was easy-going, and audiences were friendly. I was not expected to perform perfectly under a lot of pressure. I gradually became more confident about playing and started to enjoy performing. Australia was the perfect environment for me to study music and shape myself as an artist in my teens. Now, it feels about time for me to broaden my musical studies in USA!

Let’s talk about your tour. What was involved in selecting the repertoire?

A: We wanted to explore some of the classical repertoire for violin and piano – the sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, which are immensely difficult to refine and very rewarding to perform. We have the Mozart’s Sonata K.454 in B-flat, which is basically an opera itself. Beethoven’s Spring Sonata is another audiences favourite – more personal and heartfelt than the Mozart, and containing some of the most joyous and cheeky moments (particularly in the Scherzo) in music. I believe there is always a reason why a certain piece is appreciated more than others by all those who hear it, whether they are musical or not. The Spring Sonata opens with an attractive sweeping melody that automatically paints a vivid image.

The Fauré Romance is a sweet lullaby, full of harmonies that conjure a subtly yearning feeling, accompanied with shimmering tones in the piano. It is a personal favourite of mine. The Franck Violin Sonata in A major is always a great way to end a concert. It is astounding to think that a piano and violin create a sound so symphonic and huge. The different multi-layering of sonorities in the piano part is French in nature, yet resembles the fully sustained sounds of the organ, which he adored. Ye Jin and I first collaborated as a duo on this piece, so we are excited to find new ways to shape a deeper musical interpretation of it. 

On this tour, you’ll be playing in a diverse range of venues, from the Sydney Conservatorium to an art gallery in Mosman. Do you find the space in which you’re performing has as an effect on your performance?

A: Yes, I think it does. The Mosman Art Gallery is a beautiful venue for chamber concerts, as it is surrounded by the Mosman suburb and nature, which is much quieter and more refreshing than the city. The Sydney Conservatorium was the place where we did our music studies for many years. Therefore, I believe the different audiences we get – music lovers or music students – does influence our mindset when performing. Nevertheless, a great performance of classical music should always be about serving the music, not showing off our skills as musicians.

YJ: Definitely! Because piano and violin are acoustic instruments, there are many variables in the sound production – the size and structure of the hall, and even the number of audience members.

In my opinion, interaction with the audience differs depending on the size of the venue. In the big venues like Sydney Conservatorium, the audience is usually darkened, so I must be like an actress reciting a monologue on the stage. For a small venue, I can communicate more with the audience. I can talk to them more directly, see their faces, and even hear what they say during the concert! One time, an old lady sitting in the front row was saying ‘Beautiful!’ at the end of every phrase. She said it quietly, but I could hear it, and it was heart-warming. 

A: I must agree with Ye Jin that it is indeed rewarding to see the faces of the audience whilst taking a bow. At my very first solo recital at Juilliard, the audience faces were cold and expressionless at the start, until gradually, piece after piece, I saw their faces begin to fill with elation and enthusiasm. By the time the final virtuosic piece finished, they gave me a standing ovation! This growth can be compared to for example to Wagner’s Die Walküre Act 1, where the excitement is built scene by scene as both Sieglinde and Siegmund recognise and begin to yearn for each other. I always aim to produce that feeling for the audience when we give a concert and decide on programming. 

What can we next expect from you both after your tour?

A: This is our very first concert tour. After our tour, I will be heading back to Juilliard to finish off my Masters degree. We are looking to collaborate on more music together in the next year. For our next visit back to Australia, we might invite a cellist to join us so that we can perform trios together. 

YJ: I will be starting a doctorate degree at Yale, so I will be fully occupied with my thesis, exams, teaching, and recitals. I hope to come back again with interesting repertoire and stories next year!