An Interview with clarinetist Christopher Lee
by Rosemary Phillips

It was a snowy day in Vancouver. Traffic had slowed so our interview was delayed until after Christopher (Kyung Won) Lee, principal clarinet with the Vancouver Island Symphony and guest artist for ‘Mozart and a Drum Roll’ at the Port Theatre on January 20, had arrived home safely. It had been a long day of music and teaching and when I suggested I phone back later to give him time to get a snack, Christopher instead put me on speaker phone as he moved about. He was excited, nervous, but once he was relaxed, amazing and surprising stories unfolded…

“I feel so proud of my family,” Christopher Lee explained with noticeable thrill in his voice. “It is so rare to see members of one family playing in a professional orchestra.” Here Christopher spoke of the VIS performance of Carmina Burana a couple of years ago, and also last season’s ‘Epic Spirit – Inventions’. “My father played clarinet beside me, my brother played oboe, and my sister-in-law was a percussionist. Maybe it was a first, to have a whole family in the same orchestra?”

Christopher’s musical career began – with family: “I am originally from Korea but I was born in New York. Both of my parents are musicians; my father is a professional clarinetist and my mother a pianist. They were married in Korea and moved to New York to study music. When I was one year old the family moved back to Korea.

“Dad has been my major influence with the clarinet. People often ask me, ‘When did you start to play?’ That’s a question I cannot answer, for as a baby I heard my father playing. When I was in Grade 3, I played clarinet as a hobby, and then Dad had me start more seriously, giving me lessons. He then had one of his colleagues teach me. So clarinet has been a part of my life. I’ve never thought about any other career, even when I was little.

“I won several competitions when I was a teenager, in Korea, and was asked to perform in the Korean Clarinet Orchestra at the Seoul Art Center, the biggest theatre in South Korea. I also played in international competitions.”

The family moved to Canada: “Dad was in one of the top symphony orchestras in Korea and toured different countries. When he came to perform at the Orpheum he explored the city. It was very hard for him to make a decision to start a new life while he was at the top of his profession, but he did. He and my mother made the sacrifice and moved the family to Vancouver.

“I was sixteen and it was the hardest time of my life. My English was terrible. For three years, while I was in high school, I had to study more, as well as English, and also practice my music.”

A career unfolded: “When I was in Grade 11, there was a younger student who really wanted to learn clarinet but couldn’t afford the expensive fees, so I started teaching, something I really enjoy. Then I went to New York and the Juilliard School and got my Bachelor and Masters degrees (with distinction). I loved it. I was very lucky.”

Christopher has been playing ever since as a soloist and member of orchestras and ensembles, and teaching with the Vancouver Academy of Music.

About Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto: “I played the Clarinet Concerto when I was in the Vancouver Youth Orchestra, the first movement. This is the first time I am playing the whole concerto with a professional orchestra.”

“Never would I have thought that a clarinet could be capable of imitating the human voice as deceptively as it is imitated by you,” wrote Mozart to Anton Stadler. “Truly your instrument has so soft and lovely a tone that nobody with a heart can resist it.”

“It is the most well-known classical clarinet piece, the very last instrumental work Mozart wrote before he died. If you don’t play this concerto you are not considered a true classical clarinetist. You can’t get away from this piece. It’s like the Bible for clarinet. It’s something you have to be ready to play at any time.”

About performing with the VIS: “I feel so privileged and honoured to play with my own orchestra. It means more to me because I am playing with my colleagues, where I work. It’s like team work. I feel so honoured to be able to stand in front of these excellent musicians, and beside such a wonderful conductor.

“Every time I come and play with my colleagues I am surprised with their level of performance. We only meet once a month, but we are playing very high level, and we keep this level throughout the year. It is not easy. It is unique. I have been with many orchestras and this is one of the best!”

Holding benefits for children: One of Christopher’s accomplishments is The First Steps Benefit Concert Series for children in North Korea. “For three years I helped them by directing the music program. We started with five musicians, and now there are over 100 professional and amateur musicians on stage.

“I am now with the Jubilate Clarinet Ensemble and for our annual concert we chose to raise money for Free the Children, to do things like make a well for clean water, or buy a goat to help a child make a living.”

Fulfilling dreams: “Actually, when I was a student at Juilliard I thought the only way I could succeed in music was to play with a professional orchestra. Since then I have had a chance to play with different groups, such as the Cascadia Reed Quintet, and in different places.

“The Cascadia Reed Quintet concert was wonderful. You could tell by the passionate audience response. A fascinating program and amazing textures and colours.” Lars Kaario, Director of Choral and Conducting Studies, Capilano University.

“What I would like to do is find a new way in the music business, to combine music and business at the same time; like creating events, organizing concerts, hiring musicians, not just playing but creating events, like what I have done with the benefit concerts. And I would like to conduct. You just never know where your dreams may lead you.”

“We were very pleased to begin a new collaboration with Mr. Christopher Lee and his 11-piece clarinet ensemble… Students performed choreography of the Blue Danube Waltz accompanied by clarinets. A wonderful first of what we hope to be many future performances together.” Fraser Valley Academy of Dance, October 2017.

Back to family: And then, out of the blue, Christopher blurted, “I just got married last Friday. I’ve been married a week. At the end of the wedding we all played together – my mother on piano; Jenny my wife, who is a voice major, sang; my father and I on clarinet; and my brother and sister-in-law. We wanted to show our gratitude to the guests and they really enjoyed it.

“How did we meet? I met Jenny a year ago while I was conducting (for the Vancouver Korean Presbyterian Church Choir/Orchestra). She came with one of the choir members. Then at one of the concerts, in which she was singing (Korean old-style pop music), I asserted my power as conductor and proposed to her in front of the audience.” Then he chuckled, “It’s a different feeling, being married. I am very happy. I’m two now, not one. Everything is different - in a good way. We have delayed our honeymoon because we have so much work.”

Maybe when they do take that honeymoon it will incorporate Christopher’s other joys, of fishing and feasting on unusual, different foods.

When Christopher takes to centre stage with his clarinet on January 20 at the Port Theatre, in the background, giving love and support, will be – family.

Mozart and a Drum Roll

Saturday, January 20 | 7:30pm | Port Theatre