Getting to Know the Amron-Sutherland Fund Grant Recipients

HyeJin Kim

With the grant’s inaugural year coinciding with one of the most uncertain years for performing artists all around the world, recipients Dominic Cheli, Minhye Choi, HyeJin Kim (pictured), and Rodolfo Leone continued to further their careers in new and creative ways.

This year, our Amron-Sutherland Fund grantees are four Colburn alumni in the midst of launching their performance careers: Dominic Cheli (’18), Minhye Choi (’20), HyeJin Kim (’18), and Rodolfo Leone (’19). Established through the estates of siblings Bruce and Mitzi Sutherland, this fund provides financial support for recently graduated Conservatory of Music pianists on the cusp of professional careers.

In conversations with our grant recipients, one thing is clear: the award couldn’t have been a more unexpected and extraordinary surprise. With the grant’s inaugural year coinciding with one of the most uncertain years for performing artists all around the world, each pianist credits the fund for getting them through 2020 and encouraging them to continue pursuing their careers despite concerts and engagements being cancelled indefinitely.

“As performances were starting to disappear, this new ‘cleared time’ was an opportunity to further my career in a different way,” says Rodolfo. Having used a portion of the Amron-Sutherland grant to purchase a piano for his Los Angeles apartment, Rodolfo now had the time and resources to learn repertoire that would be in demand once concert stages opened up again. He chose to focus on works that required smaller ensembles and would align well with social distancing and COVID-19 protocols, like the three early Beethoven piano concertos and the Shostakovich concerto.

Meanwhile, Minhye used this time to focus on collaborative repertoire spanning cello and violin sonatas to orchestral reductions for various concertos. As soon as campus was open and available for individual projects, she began recording piano parts for Colburn students who needed to submit virtual auditions or create recordings for virtual engagements. “Remote collaboration was difficult at first—because of the stay-at-home orders, I had to discuss tempi, rubato, phrasing, and all other musical issues remotely,” describes Minhye. Despite having to learn how to navigate this new virtual reality in tandem with completing recording projects, she makes a point to laud Colburn’s low-latency technology. “We could finally communicate in real-time, and it made all the difference in the world.”

Acquiring new skills and learning on-the-go wasn’t just unique to Minhye; in fact, all four pianists reported stepping outside their comfort zones in some capacity this past year. Once the pandemic hit in March 2020, HyeJin remembers asking herself, “How do I keep sharing my art?” Even though many agree that there’s a certain inimitable chemistry that we experience from live performance, HyeJin is thankful that technology has advanced to make virtual music teaching a possibility. She is currently in her third year teaching in the Community School and Music Academy and feels fortunate to be able to give back to the next generation of young musicians through her work at her alma mater. “I was originally very nervous about teaching online—I didn’t even think it was possible! But this new way of teaching has inspired me to become a better teacher. I realized I needed to have a clearer idea of what I’m trying to explain so that it translates well through Zoom.”

Dominic, who spent an equal amount of time online this year, emphasizes the importance of using technology to connect with audiences around the globe. “Expanded accessibility makes classical music more relatable,” he says, though he adds that recordings for virtual engagements need to be of a high caliber in order to keep audiences engaged. This year, Dominic became the new Piano LIVE Director at Tonebase, an online platform that aims to make musical knowledge accessible. With the equipment he was able to purchase due to the Amron-Sutherland grant, he regularly hosts Tonebase’s livestreamed events and engages with about 1,000 people on a monthly basis. “I think there’s sometimes an elitist stigma associated with classical music, and I aim to break that stigma by inspiring, empowering, and giving focused advice to [Tonebase] viewers. It’s a rare opportunity for audiences to be able to engage with artists during a performance, and my new position at Tonebase allows me to provide those opportunities more often.”

Though in-person performances were few and far between, HyeJin and Rodolfo explain that the Amron-Sutherland grant made it possible for them to accept engagements that they would otherwise be unable to take due to costs. Artist fees and travel reimbursement were nearly nonexistent, so the grant helped offset some of the financial strain. HyeJin recalls a smaller performance from 2020 that felt like a breath of fresh air, despite the arduous travel and reduced audience size. She was asked to perform Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No.1 in South Korea and remembers being on the edge of joyous tears as soon as the orchestra began to play in the first rehearsal. “It reminded me of why we’re here. This is why we perform music,” she says.

For Rodolfo, being able to take smaller performance opportunities kept him connected. In thinking about his most recent engagements, he shares a sage observation: “You never know what can lead to other projects in the future.” Having just returned from recording a recital alongside the Viano Quartet in New York, which happened as a result of an earlier collaboration in the fall, Rodolfo has clearly taken his own advice to heart and has seen his efforts bear fruit as his schedule continues to grow for the coming year.

When asked what they’re most looking forward to in 2021-22, it’s refreshing to hear what big plans each of these tenacious artists has in mind. From self-produced solo and chamber music albums, to working on their individual artistic brands, to becoming dedicated ambassadors of arts accessibility and education, we couldn’t be prouder of our Colburn alumni. We extend our congratulations to this year’s Amron-Sutherland grant recipients and wish them the best as they continue on to fulfilling, well-rounded careers. We can’t wait to see what they do next!