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At 24, violinist Esther Yoo is already making a mark in the music world

After completing the first-ever artist-in-residence position with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Esther Yoo rehearses for the Florida Orchestra performance at the Straz Center on November 15, 2018 in Tampa. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
Published Nov. 21, 2018

TAMPA — Esther Yoo should be tired. The night before, she was playing in London's Cadogan Hall. Now she was in a dressing room at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. Only the time change made this seems normal, allowing her to land in Tampa Wednesday evening.

But Yoo, 24, is used to the schedule, which has demanded she play as many as eight cities in three continents in the same week. It's the price of being this good. The Korean-American violinist won the first-ever residency given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, finishing Wednesday with Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. She will perform the same piece today with the Florida Orchestra, on a 1704 "Prince Obolensky" Stradivarius.

"This life as a musician is something I've dreamed about since I was a really little kid," Yoo said. "Having such a big dream from such a long time ago, and to be living that and experiencing that now, is something that I never forget. I never forget how much I wanted to do that as a kid and how much I still want to do that."

She keeps her Instagram followers up to date with postings, often sprinkled with up to more than 20 hashtags. She's comfortable with horses in a pasture (#sunset #happiness#weekend #nature #horses #clouds #relax #beauty #love). She's comfortable at this year's screening of On Chesil Beach, which features her in the score (#nyc # glamsquad #redlips #pearls). She likes sharing positive thoughts from life on the road.

"There are many people who can't always be at the concert halls," she said, "and to be able to show a little bit of that through Instagram or Facebook or YouTube is quite a fun thing to do."

That kind of wide-ranging audience connection makes Yoo contemporary, said Michael Francis, the orchestra's music director.

"She is understanding what it takes to be a serious violinist in the 21st century," Francis said. "It's not the same as it was 50, 60 years ago. She is one of the new generation, understanding that the role of the solo violinist is not just to turn up and play. But instead to be part of it."

Yoo has also reached out directly to young people, including through the Nordoff Robbins music therapy charity and an eating disorders program at the Phoenix Centre.

You wouldn't know it from someone who holds eye contact and speaks in unbroken, easy sentences, but Yoo said she struggled with shyness growing up. Talking to strangers was terrifying.

"Breaking the ice was tough for me. I think that's kind of why I gravitated toward my instrument through music, because that felt like something safe. It felt like a safe language and it felt like something I could connect with very easily."

Born in the Warren, N.J., area, she started playing the violin at age 4. Her parents, both computer scientists, took her to concerts at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Afterwards they browsed the former Tower Records store, with the faces of musicians they had just watched on the covers of CDs.

"That was also in part what inspired me to become a recording artist myself," she said.

After moving to Belgium at age 6, she studied in Germany. She speaks French, Korean and German and is studying Mandarin. Accolades have accumulated since childhood. She won the International Sibelius Violin Competition at age 16, the youngest prize winner in the competition's history. She achieved a similar feat two years later, becoming one of the youngest prizewinners of the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels. This year, Classic FM named her one of the website's "30 incredible classical musicians under 30."

"She has tremendous technical facility, as well as instinctive musical feeling," Francis said. "And when you combine that little bit of special stardust, then you have the complete package."

With all of that, Yoo's journey has taken her away from perfectionism and toward self-reliance. That goes not just for well-being, but for music as well.

"When I was younger I was very much a perfectionist, and in some ways I still am," she said. "But I feel like now I have accepted that there is no such thing as perfection. You can't please everyone, ever. And I think ultimately doing what you feel is right and what makes you happy is the most important thing. And I think that as you grow older you start to understand that. Understanding and being aware of your own voice is important. Getting to know yourself, and understanding and accepting facts about yourself is really important to develop as a musician and to find your voice through music as well."

The film soundtrack is her third album. With the euphoric Royal Philharmonic stint behind her and a new year ahead, Yoo paused when asked how she would hashtag this moment.

"Excited," she said.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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