Timothy Chooi honours mentor Pinchas Zukerman with surprise appearance in Southam Hall

Timothy Chooi. Photo: Den Sweeney

Timothy Chooi is among a cadre of young Canadian musicians who are at the beginning of promising international careers. The young violinist is attending the Juilliard School in New York City where he is studying for a Masters degree. When he is in town that is. Otherwise, he is travelling the globe winning major competitions and playing recitals from Germany to South Korea. He is a student of Pinchas Zukerman’s and Wednesday and Thursday night in Southam Hall, he will be a surprise special guest of the maestro where he’ll play some of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with NACO.

Q. Mr. Chooi, you just won a prestigious award. Can you tell me about the award? What did you play? 

A. Most recently, I won First Prize at the Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition in Hannover, Germany.  It is one of the largest violin competitions in the world and there is an impressive list of past winners.

The prize includes 50,000 Euros ($75 000), a recording contract with NAXOS, one of the top classical labels in the world, a loan of a Giovanni Battista Guadagnini violin valued at more than $500,000 and a series of debuts, recitals and appearances with orchestras throughout Europe and Asia. 

I played a total of five rounds totalling three hours and 30 minutes. I played a variety of repertoire starting with Bach to a full recital, to the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with orchestra, a newly commissioned experimental piece and many others.

Q. These international competitions are very important in a young performer’s career. Are they too important in you opinion? 

A. International competitions can really help advance a young performer’s career. First of all, the global exposure it gives from the lifestream alone gets our name and performances out there.

All of the other prizes, such as the cash prize, the recording, and the list of concerts are all what young soloists really need in order to push them into that direction. That said, I don’t think all competitions are equal. I think that there are some really great competitions out there in the world, that help young performers reach the international stage, while some others don’t have as much of that emphasis. 

Q. Are they very stressful? Do you enjoy them? 

A. Well, they certainly are not relaxing.  There is a lot of pressure when you are on stage performing a concert, but when you are doing that, plus being judged directly with results, it can be very stressful.  I can’t say I enjoy them, but I do learn a lot from the process.

Q. You have also just been awarded a violin from the Canada Council Musical Instrument Bank. What did you pick? Why? What does it mean to play such an instrument?

A. I picked the 1717 Windsor-Weinstein Stradivarius violin.  I’ve been playing on this instrument over the past three years, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to know how to play a rare and beautiful instrument.  It’s a huge honour to be able to have the loan of a Stradivarius, no matter what age one is.  

Q. You participated in the NAC’s Young Artist Program. What do you remember about that experience? Was it important for you? 

A. My very first summer in Ottawa was in 2004.  I was 11 years old and I was in the junior program.  I remember that it was my first time in a city in Canada east of Alberta, and that it was so exciting to go to the nation’s capital.  I remember the violin instructor, Elaine Klimasko (who plays in the NAC Orchestra). She was such a bright and inspiring teacher for me. She connected me to Pinchas Zukerman then and that was the beginning of a long mentorship/teacher relationship with him. 

Q. Please tell me about working with Pinchas Zukerman? What kind of a teacher/mentor has he been for you? 

A. The first time I worked with Mr. Zukerman at the Young Artist Program was in 2011. Working with him has been an incredible musical and personal journey for me.  He’s so charming and his presence fills the room with joy. Being such an amazing violinist and musician, he has so much knowledge to share but he does have high expectations and his lessons can be tough. No matter how tough they were, however, they were always very sincere and honest. He truly wanted his students to succeed. Telling the truth isn’t always easy, but he had the confidence to tell us and to help us fix those issues. This made me really strong, and I think it has affected the way I’ve grown as an artist.  

As a mentor, he’s incredible. Just this past summer, I was having dinner with him in the Swiss Alps, and he told me some stories about the profession and some advice about what to do and what to avoid. We text each other sometimes and he always replies to any questions or news that I have for him.

Q. Is there one thing he told you that has stayed with you?

A. I think one concept that he has said to me that has stuck in my mind is to ‘Play for the exit sign and to project’.  This is really important because when you are practicing in a room for hours every day, it’s easy to forget that we have to fill our sound to the very last row. 

Q. You are a surprise guest in two concerts this week. What are you playing and why? 

A. I am performing an excerpt from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Maestro Zukerman was following the livestream coverage of the competition, and suggested that I perform this with him. This was the final round of the competition and in some ways, the most exciting piece. 

Q. What’s next for you?  

A. I am pursuing my masters at The Juilliard School in New York City, so I have some obligations there first (especially after missing so many weeks of school).  In terms of concerts, I am performing as the concertmaster of the Juilliard Symphony with Itzhak Perlman conducting.  In December, I have debut recitals in Germany, and South Korea before having a winter break.  In the New Year, I will continue to have some exciting debuts across Europe, Asia and North America.

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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.