Ottawa Symphony: Nikki Chooi chooses his own musical path

Nikki Chooi will play the Sibelius Violin Concerto.

As a child, Nikki Chooi’s parents wanted him to be exposed to a lot of different possibilities. So he played soccer and baseball. He tried gymnastics and visual art. But pretty early on he showed a real aptitude for something else — the violin.

“It was apparent early on that I had a knack for music and I progressed faster than other kids. That gave me motivation. It felt good to excel.”

That’s how he started, but it wasn’t until he was in early high school that he had an experience that convinced him playing music was the life he wanted.

At 14, he applied for a summer symposium at the Juilliard School in New York. His father and his teacher came with him.

“I had blast. I played for Itzhak Perlman and other big shots. Everyone in the program were amazing.” After a week, young Nikki Chooi didn’t want to go home.

“My parents were adamant that I had to finish high school. They wanted to grow up with a choice, to not get started too early and regretting the decision later.”

Chooi’s dad works in the software industry and his mother is a mathematician and homemaker. Neither was musical. But, as fate would have it, they have had two very successful musician sons. Nikki’s younger brother is Timothy Chooi, who recently appeared as a soloist with the NAC Orchestra.

Nikki will be in town soon too, playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra on Nov. 18.

A musical career is demanding and competitive. You make your living on your bow arm.

“If you want to strive for the top in your own way, there is always a lot of pressure and competition,” Nikki said. And you do what you have to do.

So, during his early training, he would fly to Calgary once a month to study at the Mount Royal Conservatory. He was there at the same time as the pianist Jan Lisiecki.

After high school, Chooi went to the Curtis Institute of Music for five years. Then he took the train to New York and finally attended Juilliard where he picked up a Master’s degree.

He then embarked on a career as a soloist. He won the Michael Hill competition in New Zealand and was a finalist in the Queen Elisabeth competition.

These successes garnered concert date and management help. He was touring quite a bit. Then he mixed it up a bit, something that he has done at other times during his blossoming career.

He joined a crossover group made up of Curtis grads called Time for Three and played some blues and pop and Americana tunes along with classical.

“I had a blast. It was something completely different from what I thought I would be doing. I was able to balance some of my own projects, concertos, chamber music recitals with touring with the band for about a year. That was really fun.”

In the midst of everything he got another opportunity to work for a year as the concertmaster with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

“I couldn’t turn that down. I felt would have regretted it if I didn’t take the job.”

Turns out, “I loved the sense of community and camaraderie within the orchestra. After that I thought this might be something I would pursue. I never thought before that I would do that and here I am in Buffalo.”

A concertmaster, Chooi says, is the “mediator between the (musicians) and the conductor. In rehearsal, if the conductor asks for a specific tone or character, it is my job to translate that into terms the violins can understand.

“When I’m playing I show more physically. That translates to the back of the orchestra.” That’s leading by example.

“It’s my job to make every idea a possibility.” In Buffalo, the music director of the philharmonic is JoAnn Falletta, who is celebrating her 20th season.

“With the music director, the orchestra knows what to expect. You can feel it taking shape. With guest conductors, we have to adjust more quickly, be more attentive, and generally be as adaptable and versatile as possible.”

He is still learning the ropes of his new job, as he’s only been in Buffalo for a few months. As part of his orientation, he’s been to a Buffalo Bills football game against the Philadelphia Eagles, where he was secretly rooting for the Eagles. He became a fan at Curtis, which is in Philadelphia. As for hockey, he’s a lifelong Canucks fan.

The Buffalo gig offers him the flexibility to pursue outside gigs. including the OSO concert in which he’ll play the Sibelius.

“I was looking for a situation where I could balance different activities.”

He’s also just gotten married so there are a lot of new beginnings in his life.

“I’m here. Wherever I am, I see it as a long term thing. This is what I have unless something different comes along.

The Sibelius is an important piece for Chooi.

It was the piece he played in his first big concerto performance. This was in 2004 with the Montreal Symphony.

“I remember that being a big event. It had a profound effect on me.” He’s played it around the world

“I’m looking forward to playing it again. Sibelius is known for his nationalism in his music. You can hear that in the orchestration. The tuttis are just so grand.

“Sibelius also understood the violin. He was a violinist and he knew about the colours and technique needed to make the concerto virtuosic.

“It is one of those pieces that every time you pick it up there is something more that I notice. As a player I have to remember to approach learning more in the music. This applies in  my life too. Everything builds over time and you have to be curious and intrigued enough to find something new and plumb the depths of the piece.”

He remembers listening to it for the first time as a kid and rushing out to buy the score at Long & McQuade in Victoria. I told my teacher that I wanted to learn it.”

He often crosses paths with his brother and the two do tour as a brother act.

The next tour with Timothy is in January. Nikki says it’s something he treasures.

“Growing up together, there is a bond that we will always have whether we are on a stage or just being together.”

There is not much duo violin repertoire so they have commissioned new works and are playing new music that is being written for them. An example of that is a double violin concerto by Sheridan Seyfried which was written for the brothers.

It’s a fun piece, he said, with a final movement that pays tribute to bluegrass music.

Ottawa Symphony Orchestra presents a Symphonic Spectular
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Nov. 18 at 7:30 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.