Pianist Ji Yong: From Korean Idol to College Freshman

Ji Yong

Photo by Mark Lyons

Way back in 2006, pianist Ji-Yong appeared on From the Top’s radio show at the age of 14. But even then, the pressure of a performance on national radio was nothing new to him. Ji-Yong was signed to a major artist management company at a tender 10 years old, and he’s been playing professionally ever since.

In 2008, Ji-Yong was on From the Top’s PBS television show, From the Top at Carnegie Hall. He’s also featured on the CD From the Top at the Pops, recorded with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops last October and available on the Telarc label August 25. He’ll also be part of a release party at New York’s hip new music venue, Le Poisson Rouge on Tuesday, September 8, showcasing the From the Top CD, as well as fellow alum Caroline Goulding’s solo debut.

I caught up with him last week to ask him about life, his career, and his international recording debut.
-Lily Kaiser, From the Top intern

From the Top: What have you been doing recently?

Ji-Yong models for Calvin Klein.

Ji-Yong models for Calvin Klein.

Ji Yong: I just came back from Korea from a month-long tour. I was part of a group called Ensemble Ditto, meaning ‘in unison’…. They’re considered classical idols in Korea, so we did a lot of interviews for TV, like pop stars. You don’t see that kind of marketing for classical music here. Some shows sold out, girls come like we’re a boy band – Ensemble Ditto is doing something like what the Backstreet Boys did for the pop industry. I’ve never done anything like that before. Makeup artists come in to do our hair and we were sponsored by a Calvin Klein clothing line, so we got to model and be featured in a magazine. It was a lot of fun.

From the Top: You came to the United States to launch your career. Was it different to play in Korea? Do you perform there a lot?

Ji-Yong: [Editor’s note: We apologize if our transcription misrepresented Ji-Yong’s feelings on the subject matter of Korean vs. American audiences. Ji-Yong is incredibly grateful for and overwhelmed by the wonderful support and attention he received while playing in Korea and expressed as such to our interviewer. We regret that our transcript of the interview may not have carried through the tone of his feelings.] Honestly, for most of my career, I’ve never played in Korea. Playing in Korea is somewhat the same, but somewhat different because you’re never sure if they really know what they’re hearing [Korean audiences] applaud a lot, the audience is really supportive, but in America, after you finish a performance you kind of get the vibe of how the concert went. With audience reaction in Korea, it’s very subtle. They’re a very reserved kind of audience, but… more than the music itself, I think the whole presence of a ‘boy band’, who have celebrity status, really brought people to come and drew attention to us.

From the Top: What was it like to record a CD for the first time  with From the Top and the Cincinnati Pops (From the Top at the Pops)?

Ji-Yong: I’ve recorded recitals before, but just the recital itself, not like recording sessions. It was a lot of fun, but it was exhausting. It was intense for me, because it’s not easy to record a movement. I was thinking, “This is going on a Telarc CD,” and trying to play really good. It turned out really nice. It was so much to fun work with Erich Kunzel, [Conductor of the Cincinnati Pops], and From the Top. We’ve [From the Top ] been in touch for so many years now. All the kids were great.

From the Top: You’ve been working with IMG Artists since you were 10. How has your relationship changed over time?

Ji-Yong: Unfortunately, I won’t be working with IMG starting pretty soon… I’ve come a long way with them. They’re all really great people and I’ve learned so much from the experience. Who gets to have that experience when they’re young? You know? There’s a personal relationship with me and my manager, we still talk, so I hope that goes on after IMG and I part ways.

From the Top: In 2007, you started an organization to combat homelessness, poverty, and HIV/AIDS through the Tides Foundation called The Ji-Yong Fund. How’s that project going?

Ji Yong 4Ji-Yong: I had a meeting with the Tides Foundation saying my main goal in life is to fulfill philanthropic goals with the arts. I’m talking about a couple years down the road having a huge concert… But I’m also trying to brainstorm and come up with something local in the Tri-state area, in a church or something, and invite my musician friends over to play chamber music or play solo pieces. I’m still working on how to like combine things together so that it’s a really good show.

From the Top: What would you tell kids who are trying to use their music for philanthropic purposes?

Ji-Yong: It’s not an easy thing to do. You need to put all your heart and soul into it… It’s not like somebody will come to see you and say, “We’ll host your benefit concert!” You need to go to the place, talk about your dreams, and if they buy it, they’ll rent you a place… But if you have a heart for it, you’ll do it no matter what.

From the Top: You’re going to Juilliard in the fall, but you’ve been in their Pre-College program for years. How do you feel about being a full-time student there?

Ji-Yong: I’m excited and a little nervous. I don’t know, it’s going to be the same thing as their pre-college program, but I’ll live there all week long. I’ll meet upcoming freshman that I’ll become friends with, but most of them I know already! I don’t think much is going to change, but I really don’t know what to expect with classes, and oh my God, am I going to be able to keep up, can they deal with my concert schedule, but I’m going in with a positive attitude. I think as many concerts as I do, I still want to have that dorm experience.

From the Top: What’s a typical day like for you this summer?

Ji Yong: I’ve been relaxing since I got back from Korea. I’m just trying to balance everything. My new little thing to say is, you only live once. If you really live to the fullest, opportunities are going to open for you, so in every opportunity, seize it and be happy.