NACO: Timothy Chooi’s passion for Tchaikovsky concerto started at age 17

Timothy Chooi. Photo: Den Sweeney

Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto has become one of the mainstays in the repertoire. But it wasn’t greeted with adoration when it was first performed in Vienna in 1881 by Adolph Brodsky. A critic of the day, called it “long and pretentious” adding that it “brought us face to face with the revolting thought that music can exist which stinks to the ear.” Finally he said that “the violin was not played but beaten black and blue.”

Safe to say opinions have changed about this piece.

For the young Canadian violin virtuoso, Timothy Chooi, it’s a piece he loves to play and that has long been in his fingers. He’ll perform it Oct. 30 and 31 in Southam Hall with the NAC Orchestra conducted by Dalia Stasevska.

He learned it first at age 17 with Pinchas Zukerman. Today Chooi plays the piece “a lot,” he told ARTSFILE, but not right away.

“After I learned it from Mr. Zukerman, I didn’t touch it again until I was 22.” The gap was a combination of factors but essentially, he said, no one asked for it.

The call finally came from the Santa Barbara Symphony. “I said OK and I learned it again. It just came into me like a language I had spoken a long time ago. It just lined up again, it was just amazing.”

That the concerto is a big piece is another factor in choosing when to play it.

“It is a full 35 minutes and it is full of technical hula hoops. It’s an acrobatic challenge for the violinist technically but also, musically, it is a rhapsodic, soulful piece.

“It is one of those concertos that never has a dull moment. It is so well written. It is concise and every one of those 35 minutes has something that draws the performer and audience to pay attention to.

“That I how I view it and that is why I feel so drawn into it. and I perform it now. Each minute fills up with so many things it is like a novel full of developing motives in each chapter.”

Chooi was urged to study it when he was a teenager at the Curtis Institute of Music.

“It was a piece that I felt was so hard that I didn’t want to learn it. Then I brought it into Mr. Zukerman and he taught it from Ground Zero.”

The former NACO music director is a special mentor for Chooi.

“He defies the trend of pushing a student to learn everything as fast as possible. He encourages students to take the time to break apart a piece of music down to each  phrase, each bar and fill it with content.”

This method also helps to line up all the mechanics in the piece, he added. This kind of instruction also helps to solidify the piece for performance.

This kind of instruction has helped Chooi in another way.

“You can lose touch with the basics (of playing) over time. Although being an artist is something that we cherish, there are times when we have to learn things really quickly. As we get more mature in our careers that can become a habit, just by learning things at the last moment.

“When you do have the opportunity to go back to the basics, it can last for several years.”

It’s a chance to assess such things as hand position and posture.

“It’s knowing what you do right and what you can improve on. Sometimes you don’t see the problem and that’s where an outside teacher comes in.”

Now that he has several concertos under his fingers, Chooi has his sights on concertos by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. There is so much literature out there to investigate.

Chooi does return to Ottawa often. He has many friends in the NAC Orchestra and he also took part in the now moth-balled Young Artists Program. And he was also awarded his instrument by the Canada Council.

These days he plays the 1717 Windsor-Weinstein Stradivarius on loan from the Council’s instrument bank.

“It is privilege to play this instrument.” His first withdrawal from the bank was a Guarneri del Jesu.

“Looking back it’s really awesome. Not many 18 year olds get to play on a Stradivarius  or a Guarneri with the kind of limited restrictions imposed by the Canada Council.”

He calls the Strad “a beast of an instrument.” By that he means it has so many facets that a lot of other violins don’t have.

“Part of the reason these instruments are so good is that, because they are so valuable, they have to be taken care of well.

“There is a debate about whether old violins or new violins are better there is truth to both sides. But the baseline of these Strads and Guarneris is that they are taken care of by luthiers constantly. All the attention keeps the instruments in good shape and gives the player a well-oiled instrument.”

He never leaves his instrument alone, he said, unless it’s well-hidden in a hotel room.

“I carry it with me everywhere. Even if I’m on a road trip with my friends and they stop for a break, I’ll take it with me.”

Chooi recently completed a Master’s at The Juilliard School.

“I thought was important to do. It was more about the experience. Being at Juilliard, being in New York, it’s a special place. It opened my mind to new connections and new experiences.

Chooi is part of a generation of young, talented Canadian string players that also includes Blake Pouliot, Ottawa’s Kerson Leong and Bryan and Silvie Cheng, also from this city.

Chooi’s own journey started in the family home in Victoria, B.C., where his older brother Nikki was introduced to the violin first and Timothy watched and wanted to follow along.

He says he never made a conscious decision to attempt a musical career, “I just melted into it.”

Brother Nikki will be in concert in Ottawa on Nov. 18 with the Ottawa Symphony, conducted by Jean-Francois Rivest playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Chooi was recently in Belgium at the school, where Leong also has studied, placing second in the Queen Elisabeth competition.

Timothy and Nikki regularly get together in a duo called The Brothers Chooi.

“We try to plan our time together. I think it’s really nice that we can do it. It’s a really special event that we try to keep sacred. We love playing together and we try to book two periods a year. We just did two weeks and we are back together in January. We limit it to keep it fresh.”

They also make an effort to go to places where classical music is not as common.

“That started by itself. We do play in major cities, but it is something that has attracted us to play in smaller cities.”

They first toured northern Quebec. The duo showcases two brothers who enjoy playing together. It is a family story which people can relate to, he believes.

“We are pretty conscious of the importance of family in music. That’s how it started for us. Playing music has given us a chance to bond and and maintain a close relationship even though he lives in Buffalo, New York, where he is the concertmaster of the symphony and I’m travelling and living somewhere else.”

Chooi has also made an effort to bring music to events that foster world peace and building bridges.

“How music can be relevant to society has always been a huge question for me personally. It is a tool that can be used to take people outside the worries of daily life and have a moment of peace and enter into a natural human emotion.”

One event that he did perform at was in Ottawa in a Canada-China summit.

As a Canadian of Chinese heritage he was able to explain — in English, French and Mandarin — how he has been able to use music to find his own identity in Canada and bring that to the world stage. It shows what music can do.

One might dare to say that the two countries could use more music by Timothy Chooi today.

Timothy Chooi plays Tchaikovsky
Where: Southam Hall
When: Oct. 30 and 31 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.