Bath-based concert pianist Nurry Lee recently won first prize in the senior category at the Piano House International Piano Competition. Her prize was an appearance playing at the legendary Carnegie Hall in New York. Nurry spoke to us about her musical life ahead of her debut concert there.
You recently won First Prize at the Piano House International Piano Competition and as result are playing at Carnegie Hall in New York. What did you have to do for the competition? I won the senior category, and I had to play a 25-minute programme. I performed Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite arranged by Mikhail Pletnev and Liszt’s Reminiscenes de Norma. It was a big programme, but with two of my favourite pieces.
What pieces are you performing at Carnegie Hall? I am playing the Tchaikovky and the Listz pieces that I played for the competition, because they are two of my favourite compositions for piano, and they are suitable for such a large concert hall. They are technically some of the hardest pieces in the piano repertoire and are also demanding musically. Mikhail Pletnev is a top concert pianist, and he showed this Nutcracker arrangement to the great Vladimir Horowitz. Horowitz had a look at the score and then said to Pletnev, ‘You and I are the only two pianists who will ever be able to play this’, because it was so difficult.
How do you feel about performing in such a prestigious venue? It is always a pleasure to play anywhere. But to be able to play at Carnegie Hall in New York, one of the greatest classical music halls in the world, is such an honour. It has an incredible history, and all the leading concert pianists and classical musicians have played there. I do get nervous, no matter how many times I perform. For me, it is more of a mental thing. I make sure I warm up/practise well on the day before the performance, and make sure I am hydrated and have had enough food to be able to draw out the energy. I have to be able to recite the music and programme in my mind (since I will be playing from memory) and then, just before going on stage, I put all of my focus on the music, character and story of the pieces.
You got Grade 8 Distinction on piano and violin when you were 11. How much of this was natural talent and how much was hard work? I think, honestly, it is a mixture of both. I definitely had a certain knack for music. Before I officially had a teacher, I would hear my sister play in her lessons, and then I would come up to the piano and play what she did. I feel like talent will give you a head start and make it a little easier, but discipline is the fuel that lets the talent grow. When you combine the two you can achieve your best.
Was being a concert pianist always your dream? Yes absolutely! For as long as I can remember, since learning the piano, I wanted to be a concert pianist. When I was very young, I would picture performing to a big audience. That is partly why, no matter how difficult things are, I am so grateful to be living my dream.
Tell us about your experience studying at Wells Cathedral School I absolutely loved studying at Wells. I was there for seven years, from 11–18 years old. It was the perfect and most ideal blend of music, education, friends and adventure. Musically, it was stimulating because there were so much music going on and academically it was amazing. I was able to make connections between music and different subjects.
When starting to play a new piece of music, what is your process? I usually start straight from the score. If it’s something completely new, I find a recording and just listen once. But I always start from the score, learn it through my fingers, and analyse it. And then I create my interpretation of it. At that point I will listen to other recordings, to get inspiration or see what they came up with. This usually makes for a very genuine, natural and unique interpretation.
What is your most favourite piece of piano music to play? I love Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2, which I recently played in Hungary. There is something about the Russian school of composers – including Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Stravinsky – that I feel a certain connection with.
Does the life of a piano soloist ever make you feel isolated? Yes, definitely. Piano itself is quite an isolating instrument – you spend hours by yourself practising and then travelling by yourself to perform. I guess with social media and the internet these days it is easier to feel more connected, and luckily I have friends in most of the countries I perform in, but it can definitely feel isolating at times.
How did your South Korean heritage inform the person you are? I grew up in the UK, but my parents had a South Korean mindset and did pass on those values to me. I did an exchange to South Korea at the Korea National University of Arts in 2019, and that was where I had the time to understand the culture more. My relatives are in Korea and earlier this year, I played in a few concerts there.
What does Bath mean to you? Bath is a special place for me. It is somewhere I can call home, no matter where I go. I am inspired by the beautiful scenery, the history, the architecture and it feels like time is never rushed there. There is also a feeling of community and support. When I performed at The Guildhall in August, the support I had from local businesses and everyone I spoke to was tremendous and really touching.
What are your ambitions for the future? To carry on playing and performing. I will be creating another album, and recording some music online. I will be playing in concerts in London and internationally and I will definitely play again in Bath. I guess the larger picture and goal for me is to bring classical music and piano music to as many people and places as I can. The music itself is so fantastic and incredible, and so if I can give that to people, that would be an absolute privilege.