Interview with World Renowned Cellist Isang Enders
It was a little over a year ago when I first discovered a young cellist by the name of Isang Enders playing Bach’s Cello Suites and speaking about his relationship with these works. (Watch Isang Enders on Youtube). Certain aspects about him caught my attention immediately. Firstly, he appeared to be of Asian descent but spoke in a native German tongue which led me to suspect he is a fellow mixed race. Enders is in fact mixed race with a Korean mother and German father. I’m always intrigued by fellow Asians who speak a European language fluently and especially those who are musicians. These talented individuals help to break down archaic thought patterns perpetuated by ignorant people who used to (some still do) believe that Asians have no depth of emotion and could not become world class musicians.
I’m also deeply attracted to musicians who clearly emanate an other-worldly intensity towards their music, a fervor that shines through their eyes sans overly dramatic physical movements bordering on the comical. Enders is young, (29 as of the writing of this piece), but possesses a calm maturity in his art that has propelled him to the international classical scene where at 20 years old he became the youngest section leader in Germany as principal cellist of the Dresden Staatskapelle. Over the past decade, he has gone on to tour Europe and Korea, collaborating with world renowned maestros like Zubin Mehta and Vasily Petrenko.
Given his talent, dedication, the masters he surrounds himself with, his mature world view and lastly, boyish good looks that will certainly play out well with young fans, my prediction is that Isang Enders will do for cello what Yundi and Lang Lang did for piano, that is, envelope a whole new generation into falling in love with classical music like they do with pop stars to the point where Enders will tour to sell out concerts worldwide and become a luxury brand endorsement darling.
Here is the recent interview I did with the classical world’s newest superstar, Isang Enders.
D: What are a few of the earliest memories you have from your childhood relating to music?
I: I can remember how my father practiced on our modest upright piano at home. He was still a student and he started explaining to me about the music he was playing while I was lying under the piano. It is one of these vague memories which I relate to music and being very young, but from photos I know I was actually playing the piano from a much earlier age…
D: How old were you when you began studying cello? Was this of your own volition or influenced by parents/other family members?
I: When I turned 9 my parents thought I might need to learn an instrument I could use in the middle school orchestra. I was eager to learn the violin but my piano teacher explained to me that with my thick fingers I should instead play the cello. However, after seeing Itzak Perlman I am convinced it would have actually been possible anyway!
D: It is said that you grew up in a Korean German family. Can you please share with us a bit about your family background (how such a unique combination came to be, what ethics and values your parents instilled in you,)? Do you speak both languages? Do you feel familiar with both cultures?
I: The first generation of Korean women who came to Germany were mainly nurses. Some of them stayed and had families but I personally did not meet many of them. My mother arrived with the first wave of music students. Back then you were allowed to leave South Korea purely for the purpose of study. I did not know until a short time ago that until my birth year (1988) almost no-one in Korea had a travel passport!
I am usually called half Korean, half German, or the other way around. Although I might feel three-quarter German and quarter Korean, I think full German AND full Korean would be more correct. From the outside perspective, however, I am not at home anywhere. In Germany I am not German enough. In Korea I am not Korean enough. There is real solution to this.
My mom gave us Korean language and food, but she turned her back to her past and we kind of lost it. After many years, when I started traveling to Korea for concerts on a regular basis, I started learning the language again. Today I can read and write, I can get by and order food whilst I am in Seoul. I feel very comfortable over there since they accept me as a foreigner and I do not need to adjust to society’s expectations. I love Asia in general and this is definitely as a result of how I grew up. My girlfriend, who I live with, is ethnically full Korean but was born in Austria. I see her as German.
D: Korean culture is known to be education and music focused while German culture is known for strong discipline. Did either or both cultures factor into your musical journey and how?
I: I find Korean education pays a lot of attention to discipline but it is not so efficient. I am happy I had a very liberal family which allowed me to learn in a free surrounding without too many expectations and pressure from society like in Korea, where your value is defined by your school results. I guess I have gained a few good qualities like patience, reserve and kindness, which my mother taught me, but I also like to question everything and I am obsessed about details and perfection. This is probably a more German approach.
D: You broke records by being the youngest section leader in Germany when you were appointed Principal Cellist of the Dresden Staatskapelle at age 20. Did you feel tremendous pressure at the time? What were the most memorable moments of your four years there?
I: First I felt very excited. A job of that calibre at that time was something very special for me. I adore the repertoire, the sound, the prestige of the institution – and it is undoubtedly one of the best in the world. Of course I felt pressure too. The responsibility was very high, maybe too high. At the age of 20 you are not a grown-up. I had just started school and had to handle issues I had never heard of and which were all behind the stage, internal issues far from musical or artistic aspects. You cannot expect a twenty-something to have profound knowledge of inter-human communication, but musically it was the most amazing extension of my education I could ever have imagined or hoped for. I was able to learn from the greatest conductors and soloists on this planet and worked on incredible repertoire. I learnt so much.
The touring was very memorable but also brought up many questions. After traveling to Abu Dhabi and playing at the Emirates Palace I asked why we could ship 140 people, plus cargo, into the desert, but could not play for kids in schools around the corner from our concert hall. At the end its all about business, right?
D: What has been the most difficult problem or moment of your career thus far and how did you handle it? How do you handle stress in general
I: After 3 years at work I had a shock and paralyzed my back. After a few days in hospital I felt incredibly relieved that I did not have to work anymore. I had worked all my life since my childhood until that day and realized that I needed a break and to reconsider my day to day schedule. It was a classic burnout, but simply speaking I was not happy with my life. Should that be the end, being in a world class orchestra with all its privileges for the next 45 years? Well, I guess not.
Thanks to very good friends and the discovery of everyday simple pleasures, which I took somewhat for granted, I soon got my spirit and enjoyment back for music making. In the end it resulted in the termination of my contract in Dresden and made me look forward to new challenges. Life seems to be notoriously up and down. This particular curve was pretty deep but the feeling of what came after is what I am still enjoying today.
D: Who are your top 3 favorite composers for listening to and top 3 favorite composers to play (if different) and why?
I: I grew up in a super musical environment. Germany is a kind of hot spot where all classical music clashes: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mozart, Schönberg, Mahler, Haydn, Schumann, etc! All of them are omnipresent, just to mention a few. It gives me a hard time to name a favorite, but I admit that I am more into music which gives me meaning rather than technical challenges. It might be typical for a cellist to prefer melodies over high-speed or finger-breaking scales. I am more the researcher. I love to search for the sound of the particular language of the composer. It is impossible for any of us to ever fully understand what a composer meant or how he wanted it to be heard. The scores give so much freedom and as an interpreter I am either doomed or lucky to research or read something into it. A forte is nothing more than a letter on a piece of paper. We translate it as “loud” which is in itself so relative that we cannot ever tell what is the absolute amount of loudness. A Double Bass forte differs from an Organ forte! Anyway, every composer deserves our full attention and I can guarantee however much attention we give and how much information we might think we receive, there is always more to it.
D: Who have been your mentors and how did he/she affect the course of your journey?
I: When I was much younger I was obsessed with the sound and playing of the American Cellist Lynn Harrell. He just spoke to my heart and I felt so touched when listening to his music. Of course my dream was to meet him and learn from him. One day I got the chance and we became very close even though I could not speak a word of English. We communicated via music and our nerdy cello minds. Lynn mentored my musical journey for a long time although of course I had other teachers and their mentorship was life-changing as well. In the end it is important to find your own way and language. Only after becoming aware of this fact could we be colleagues and then friends.
D: When you are playing any given piece, what goes through your mind?
I: The main thoughts happen before performing a piece. All the technical and musical thoughts take a lot of time and effort. When I play I wish to get into the so called “flow” which is very difficult to achieve, but my thoughts while playing include phrasing, breathing, solutions of a technical nature and especially sound. Sometimes my mind goes on its own journey and other thoughts appear in my head, like what I want for dinner, or that I have to get my taxes sorted. Profane issues. At the end we are all servants to the music and the voice of the composer, but our individual character brings it alive.
D: Will we be seeing more of you on tour in the US anytime soon?
I: In 2018 I will be on tour with my friends from the Marlboro Music Festival. It will be an intense time and the tour goes through New York, Philadelphia and many other places. I am very excited and in general I hope very much to make music in the US more often in the future.
D: What are your dreams for the next few years?
I: I dream to achieve that I can express my musical intentions to the people at any place on earth. I want to play as much as possible and I am searching for my sound or language in a dialogue with whom wants to listen. Of course I care about the world we are living in. I am a very political person and have so many interests and hobbies but current times make me think a lot and also worry. The future became very uncertain, so I wish health and happiness for my family and my beloved.
Isang Enders Biography
Isang Enders has quickly established himself as a dynamic artist in search of new-concepts and works for the violoncello. Born into a German-Korean musician family in Frankfurt in 1988, Isang Enders began studying with Michael Sanderling at the age of twelve. His playing has since been influenced by his studies with Gustav Rivinius, Truls Mørk, and above all, by the mentoring of the American cellist Lynn Harrell.
At the age of twenty, Isang Enders was appointed principal cello of the Dresden Staatskapelle, making him the youngest section leader in Germany. During his four years with the orchestra, he also co-founded the Gohrisch Shostakovich Festival alongside Tobias Niederschlag.
Isang Enders recently made his debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra, enjoyed collaborations with the Stuttgarter Philharmoniker and Stavanger Symphony orchestras and performs regularly with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. He has worked with eminent conductors including Myung-Whun Chung, Christoph Eschenbach, Pablo Heras-Casado, Eliahu Inbal, Zubin Mehta and Vasily Petrenko.
He has most recently performed Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto in both Stavanger and Paris, and performed the Korean debut of Dutilleux’s Cello Concerto as well the Shostakovich Cello Concerto with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.
As a dedicated chamber musician, he continues to work closely with the pianist Igor Levit, with whom he has toured extensively, as well as Kit Armstrong and Sunwook Kim. Last season he made his debut at the Bach Festival in Montreal, and spent the summer at the Malboro Music Festival in the US. He performs regularly as a recitalist at Heidelburger Fruhling and Rheingau Musikfestivals.
His highly-acclaimed and early recording of the Bach Cello Suites on Berlin Classics was a triumph. One critic describes him as a “reflective and highly intelligent young man”. Isang Enders is signed to Berlin Classics and SONY Music Entertainment and plays an instrument by Jean Baptiste Vuillaume (Paris, 1840).