Violinist Chung: back from finger collapse, to play the "one note"

LONDON - Losing the use of her left index finger pretty much put an end in 2005 to the high-flying, globe-trotting career of Korean violin virtuoso Kyung Wha Chung.

"During a rehearsal my finger just collapsed and I couldn't play anymore," Chung, who will be playing her first London recital next week in more than 10 years, told Reuters in an interview at a posh London hotel.

The injury, due to weakening she attributes to a cortisone overdose, might have thrown a lesser spirit than Chung, 66, into a spiral of despair. Instead, she is full of enthusiasm for making a limited comeback, and can also see a macabre upside to her injury.

"Why do you think you are having an interview with me?" the diminutive Chung, who still seems to have much of the energy she displayed as a dynamo of the concert circuit in her youth, said with a twinkle in her eye.

"Because you are curious what does a violinist like me go through when I have a hand injury. There are a gazillion people who have hand injuries."

For violinists, simply put, losing the use of the left index finger makes it impossible to press down on the strings to produce the right notes, rendering them a bit like a one-handed pianist.

It wasn't anything she would have wished to happen to anyone, especially herself, but Chung said she took the opportunity to re-examine her life, which she said up until then had been driven mostly by the pressure of the concert circuit.

"My personal life was something I could spend more time on, and so I'm forever grateful that I went through that period,"the mother of two sons said.

"I'm relieved of a lot of excess luggage, I'm freer, I'm lighter. I came to terms with all the things that I didn't have time to question because my immediate challenge was to go on stage."

Also, as her finger slowly healed with years of therapy, she learned how to do something only a virtuoso prevented from playing her instrument could pick as a pastime: to play the violin in her head.

"For instance, after coming out of five years of not playing, and then to do the six unaccompanied Bach (sonatas and partitas), after not having played...I worked it out all in my head...with every possibility of bowing and so on," she said.

Chung had a fairly meteoric rise to the top when she was a young and glamorous prodigy, fresh out of the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York.

She first attracted notice when she was the co-winner with Pinchas Zukerman of first prize in the prestigious Leventritt competition in New York in 1967. Her fortune was made when she stepped in for Itzhak Perlman in London to nail a performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in 1970.

A new Decca box set of her collected recordings shows her proficiency on a wide range of music, from Bartok to Mendelssohn to Brahms - whom she especially adores - to chamber performances with the likes of pianists Krystian Zimerman and Radu Lupu.

But Chung, who gave up playing the piano when she was a child to begin what would become a lifelong romance with the violin, attributes the foundation of her success to just one note.

"For a string player, there is the challenge of finding that one touch of sound that can go immediately into somebody's soul," she said, adding that she figures she tied with Zukerman for the Leventritt award because of the way she played the first note, a B flat, of Bruch's "Scottish Fantasia".

"So you can do it with one note," she laughed.