‘The Goddess of flute’
Jasmine Choi was appointed associate principal flute of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 2005. She was just 22 and it was already apparent that she was destined for musical greatness.
Today, Choi is regarded as one of the finest flute players in the world. The press oohs and aahs about her everywhere she goes: “The goddess of flute!” (South Korea); “One of the 10 best flutists in the history of music” (UK); “one of the most celebrated flautists of our time” (Germany).
She is in near-constant demand, performing 100 or more concerts a year, from New York City to Rome to Tokyo and, yes, to Cincinnati, where she will perform Nov. 19 as part of the Matinée Musicale series.
But when we talk on the phone, she is in her hometown of Daejeon, Republic of Korea, preparing for a gala performance celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Daejeon Arts Center. Since she is an official cultural ambassador for the city of 1.5 million, no major celebration of this sort could be complete without her. Despite all the excitement surrounding the event, she admits that she is a little wary of the undertaking.
“They came and asked me to do this project with them, which is – brace yourself – to play with an AI (artificial intelligence) pianist,” she said. “I don’t really understand how that will work. The organizers said I should show up and they would explain. So that’s what I’m doing.”
Performances in Daejeon are unlike those anywhere else. There, people still remember her as the promising 12-year-old flute player who told her parents she wanted to move to Seoul to take on a more concentrated study of the instrument. In Daejeon, the jet-setting soloist is staying with her parents and sleeping in the same bedroom she occupied as a child.
“When I stay here, it fills me with all sorts of emotions,” said Choi, who now lives with her non-musician husband in an Austrian town on the shore of Lake Constance. “In some ways, it makes me feel like a child again. But I still have very grown-up responsibilities.”
Music, it seems, was her destiny. Her grandfather was a noted conductor, her mother a violinist.
“All of her siblings were classical musicians,” she added, “and sometimes their spouses and children were, too. At home, there were always recordings of classical music playing. And my mom would bring her string quartet home to rehearse all the time. If music was a language, I’d have to say that music was my first language.”
She’d had brief interludes studying violin – at age 3 – and piano, beginning at 5. But nothing captured her musical heart until the requisite elementary school study of recorder at the age of 9.
“I immediately fell in love with that instrument,” she recalled. “I wanted to play more melodies and more tunes. But I realized I needed more notes than a C major whole-note scale. I experimented and discovered that I could make more notes, but not as many as I wanted.”
Fortunately, she had a 12-year-old neighbor who lived upstairs and played the flute. Choi was in awe with what she heard.
“She was 12 and really advanced. And she definitely had more notes than I had on my recorder. I begged my parents to get me a flute. There was just something about a wind instrument that was so…” She can’t quite find the words to describe what it’s like to power an instrument with her own breath. Perhaps it’s too intimate a relationship to describe to someone she’s just met.
Obviously, the instrument resonated with her. During the next few years, she made her way through the conservatory in Seoul and was offered a full scholarship at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music at the age of 16. It was a remarkable trajectory, one that would see her coming to Cincinnati and moving on to become principal flutist of the Vienna Symphony at the age of 28.
Today, she leads the peripatetic lifestyle of an international guest artist, hopping on and off planes every few days, spending more nights in hotels than at home. On the one hand, she misses the nearby mountains of Austria and the home she shares with her husband. But on the other, there is a necessary level of isolation to being a solo musician.
“You know, sometimes people say they pity me for the schedule I have to keep,” she said. “But I never have imagined any other life for myself. This is a musician’s life and I’m loving it. I find myself very happy and content on the airplanes. It is so peaceful there. You eat and watch movies and they clean up after you. It’s wonderful.”
But for every moment of alone time in planes and hotels comes the necessity of constantly assessing her own playing. It’s a job that is equal parts critic, teacher and audience member.
“My expectations of myself are higher than anyone else’s,” said Choi. “I think it’s the same for most classical musicians that we strive for the sake of music and strive for getting better every day.”
She stopped again, obviously uncomfortable with something she had just said.
“I don’t know. Perhaps I should speak only for myself. But in my case, I don’t really care if they praise me or say wonderful things, as long as I am satisfied with how I played that night. When I’m not satisfied with what I played, it’s very difficult for me to actually feel good. It doesn’t matter how much praise I got that day. I have to remember that I am just the middle person between the composer and the audience.”
The goal, she said, is really quite simple.
“I want, always, to play better than yesterday,” she said. “Today, I should present the best traits of myself as a musician and as a person thus far in my life.”