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Singing Thanks

MARLBORO, Vt. -- As violin and woodwind music swells behind her, Hyunah Yu, one of America's fastest-rising classical vocalists, sits in a simple chair at the front of the stage, small hands folded as if in prayer. It's the 35th New England Bach Festival, and amid the golden splendors of fall in rural Vermont, five solo vocalists are among 100 musicians who will give voice, over the next three hours, to Johann Sebastian Bach's narration of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christmas Oratorio.

Critics call the Korean-born Yu, a soprano, a phenomenon on the verge of international renown. In an elegant, full-length black dress, the Peabody Institute graduate draws attention even in repose. Her eyes close, eyelids fluttering as if they're riding on an updraft of sound. "I'm listening to everything," she later observes. "The music moves me so."

When her turn comes, surrender yields to command. She rises to a height that seems grander than her actual 5 feet 3 inches, libretto on one arm, reaching toward the audience of 400, palm skyward, with the other. The small frame delivers a sound that reverberates through the hall with a startling power. "Fear not," she sings, her voice both potent and quavering, the very timbre of one of Bach's angels. "For behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy."

To hear Yu is to discern the sound of rising stardom. "It's not necessary to know a thing about her past," says a mentor, Peabody director Robert Sirota, to know that "you're in the presence of something special" when she takes the stage. "Even though she is very much a diva, there's a selflessness to what she does. People respond to that. It's genuine."

Yu knows the awesome power of tragedy and transformation; vivid and fragile, she calls to mind that spirit come to earth. Eyes half-closed, she begins with a tone in the middle registers, escalating pitch in stages so finely calibrated it sounds as though she's unfurling a flag on a rising wind. The final, gleaming note -- an oscillating banner of sound -- shimmers, then yields to silence. She returns to her seat.

Later, she tries to verbalize how she summons the sad and the satisfying, the ancient and the new, and gives them sound. The closest she can come is to recall the words of a speaker at her 1996 graduation, jazz-pop vocalist and classical conductor Bobby McFerrin. "He told us that, as a performer, you have two ways to go," she says after a pause. "There's control, and there's surrender. If you lose your technique, you can forget performance. At the same time, you want to let the music take over, let the moment take you, maybe let something happen you didn't prepare.

"It's scary to leave yourself vulnerable," she says, choosing words she might well have used to describe her own life of triumph and tragedy. "But that's what makes live performance so wonderful. I want others to open their minds and hearts, to feel that I'm just like them when I talk about love, about longing and pain.

"That way, the music can get inside them and do to them the same things it has done to me."

Yu, 35, didn't always surrender to music, though she can't recall a time when it didn't fill her home. Her father, the Rev. David J. Park, a Presbyterian minister in Baltimore, made sure of that. A refugee from northern Korea before the war, he spent so many years living by his wits that he was never able to develop his first aesthetic love: classical music. Instead, after assuming leadership of a congregation in Austin, Texas, in 1981, he made it the soundtrack to the lives of his five children, including Hyunah, his headstrong second-born.

To Hyunah (usually pronounced HYUNN-uh or HUNN-uh) Yu, Park is still the man who can do anything -- fix a car, wire a house, solve a dilemma -- all the while epitomizing Christian faith by way of the earnest effort he brings to what he does. "He doesn't do it by following rules," says Yu, "but by living the love inherent in the Scriptures as honestly as he can. I see him fall, but what matters is I see him really trying." The example has rubbed off on Yu, who says her beliefs radiate in all she sings.

Admiration didn't always mean acquiescence. Park, who sees music as a means of flooding the world with God's affection, prayed that his children would pursue it professionally. His hope combined with what Yu calls a traditional Korean expectation that women incline toward art to generate what felt like pressure.

Like most American teens, she'd have none of such a plan. Her black-sheep choice? Medicine. "When I was in high school," she says, "I felt that I had a calling. Not the way you hear a voice, but I heard it and felt it, a mixture of the two. I actually felt God telling me, 'Be my hands.' And I thought, 'Doctors heal people; they are God's hands. That's what I'm going to do.' " It was no idle hope. A brilliant pupil, she studied genetics independently in high school and earned a molecular biology degree at the University of Texas.

By the late '80s, her plan seemed ready to blossom. As a 20-year-old sophomore, she met 27-year-old Yeong-Ho Yu, a handsome doctoral student in artificial intelligence whose talents in areas from cooking to sports evoked her father. They bonded profoundly. When a job offer from Boeing's helicopter division took Yeong to Philadelphia, Hyunah Yu put her medical aspirations on hold and went along.

"I was so confident then," she says, "not really in such a nice way. I was a go-getter. A lot of things were about me, me, me. Anything I put my mind to, I could do. I was a diva before I even sang! So foolish."

Yeong didn't seem to mind. He showed her, she says, what it meant to love. They bought a house, joined a Korean Christian church, sang in the choir, made friends. They had a baby boy, Daniel, who even as an infant looked so much like Yeong he seemed a carbon copy. Both adored him. Before long, she'd have her own career back on track.

Communists had put her father to rout, and he had adapted courageously, without complaint. But that was another time, another place. This was America; she was Hyunah Yu. Things were clear, well defined. Certain.

It happened on Valentine's Day, less than two weeks shy of their second wedding anniversary. The couple, members of a young-marrieds group in their church, were helping organize an evening service, including a choir performance.

When the family arrived at Emmanuel Church in downtown Philadelphia, it was frigid and dark, though at 6:30 p.m. they were an hour early. Yeong noticed that 5-month-old Daniel, recovering from a cold, had finally fallen sound asleep in his car seat. He'd stay to watch the boy. "Why don't you go in and practice, Hyunah?" he said. As she entered the building, she glanced back to see him in the front of their new Acura Legend, quietly singing from his hymnal.

How strange that the teen-age boys who changed their lives had no criminal background, no record of trouble. Good students, both. They lived in a high-rise housing project next door. Having seen the steady stream of pricey cars in the church lot every Sunday, they decided to take one for themselves. About 6:45, they spotted the perfect target: a gleaming, charcoal-gray import with tinted windows and the engine running.

Precisely how it happened may never be known. A lone witness saw the boys roughing up Yeong, but didn't see the shooting; at the trial two years later, the boys changed their story many times. But this much is clear: The father's love for his son cost him his life. They shot Yeong three times point-blank, twice in the heart. When a shaken church member interrupted Yu just before 7 p.m. to say that her husband had been harmed, she raced from the building as if in someone else's dream. There in the parking lot, police lights flashed in the night; emergency radios crackled. Several of the Yus' doctor friends surrounded Yeong, who lay on the ice-cold pavement, his life slipping away. The car, and the infant, were gone.

Two hours later, a woman watching television heard a baby wailing in the cold outside her home. Police found Daniel near a back-alley dumpster. He was unharmed -- still strapped into his car seat, covered by a single blanket.

There's a lot Yu can't remember, but friends say madness fell upon the woman who had been so sure of her invincibility. She cried so much, so often, so uninterruptedly over the next few weeks that friends had to stay with her, around the clock at first, to keep her hydrated. When she found the strength to sit, she often made sure the adjacent seat was empty. "That is Yeong's place," she'd say, her black eyes wild. Again and again, she fainted.

She begged God to change his mind. "With you, anything is possible," she'd cry. "You know I need Yeong. When will you bring him back to me?" It was impossible now to imagine any sort of life, let alone the grueling path to one as a doctor. "I couldn't grasp it," she says. "It was bigger than I could accept or digest or process or do anything with."

She hoped God was larger than her doubts. Even now it made no sense, she told herself, to spurn the one who had made her. Was God's job to do her bidding? "He owes me nothing," she says. "Nothing! Yet he lets me know in the Bible that he loves me. He gave his only son for me. I felt him sustaining me." The words are as resonant as song.

A decade -- in many ways, a lifetime -- later, she considers an irony she can neither explain nor deny: Her husband's violent death was her turning point. She'd give up in an instant all that has come her way since that snowy evening, if only it would bring him back. But she accepted long ago that this was not an option. It was time, instead, to surrender.

"I see everything God has brought to me through this tragedy," she says, both laughing and dabbing tears from her eyes. "I see how faithful he has been. I am so blessed, and I don't even know why. There is no one in the world luckier than Hyunah."

Maybe it began when her mother, Jeung-Ja Park, and father, then minister of a large Atlanta congregation, left everything behind, relocated to Philadelphia, and moved in to support her and Daniel. Perhaps it was when she returned to those Scriptural passages she'd read since childhood and felt, now, as if they'd been written for her. Or maybe it started when her older sister called from Baltimore with the invitation that would transform her universe. But Yu and God started anew. The young woman who had once resolved to be his hands felt others reaching out to touch her, offering her a life she could never have imagined.

Hyun-Sook Park was already a doctoral student in piano at Peabody when her brother-in-law was killed. And when she called to urge her younger sister to audition as a singing student, Yu couldn't summon the common sense to say no. Never mind that Reverend Park's second daughter knew little music theory or history, that her experience consisted mostly of solos in church choirs, and that, if accepted, she'd start as a 25-year-old undergrad among teens. Three months after Yeong's death, as she poured her grief into song for a Peabody admissions committee, all doubts seemed to vanish. "I tell students they begin performing the instant they walk onstage," says director Sirota. "And from a musician's viewpoint, it's really only necessary to see this remarkable glowing presence appear and hear this extraordinary sound come out of her mouth. This was absolutely clear the first time I heard her sing." Hyunah Yu -- she kept and keeps the surname -- had given up control, and a calling found her.

Day after day, as she drove to Baltimore from her home near Philadelphia, she'd speak to Yeong. "In 10 1/2 years, I have [rarely] cried about Yeong in front of anyone," she says. "My family, especially my mother, has suffered enough over me. But then, I cried like a broken pipe. I loved those drives. I guess that was time for Hyunah. Little by little, I went through a healing process. I started to believe, really understand, that Yeong was gone."

Two years later, life tore at the wound when the murder trial began. On the witness stand in a Philadelphia courtroom, the law compelled Yu to relive the first officially recorded carjacking in the city's history. She finally saw her husband's killers, and it wasn't just blind rage she battled. There was the attention of the media, which played up the story, often featuring 2-year-old Daniel. There was the staggering course load and a long daily commute. The terror she had felt after the killing returned. On the verge of "breaking, emotionally, physically, in every way," she concluded it was all too much. She couldn't sleep, eat or think.

When Yu says today that she is best described by the word "grateful," Peabody staff members often top her list of those who merit thanks. In the competitive, often cutthroat world of conservatories, the school was an oasis of support. "No one thought I was any different from anybody else then; certainly I didn't," she says. "Peabody owed me nothing. But Peabody accommodated itself to me."

She stopped by the office of Emily Frank, the dean of student affairs, one day with the goal of quitting. No matter how hard she tried, Frank wouldn't let her. "She said, 'Hyunah, think about it some more;' 'I can talk to your professors.' 'We can alter the schedule.' I just gave up and did as I was told."

The trial brought little satisfaction; when the two teens got life without parole, it didn't bring Yeong back. But when she graduated, she cried with Emily Frank.

Yu, who now lives with her family in Baltimore, often appears on behalf of Peabody and Hopkins, rarely missing a chance to sing their praises. She consults with friends and mentors. Among them is William Brody, the Hopkins president who attended, with his wife Wendy, nearly all of Yu's student recitals. He once rescheduled two days of board meetings so trustees could witness "the rare warmth and talent" that their university had shaped.

For Yu, a single Korean word embodies the attitude that Peabody, and Hopkins in general, showed her: gwanshin. "There's no equivalent word in English," she says. "It's the kind of love that shows commitment. If you care for someone, if you have feeling for that person, but don't take the time to show it in actions, is it really love?"

Brody and Sirota, and other supporters, say that such a special talent would have found its level without their help. She demurs. "If each person made just one phone call," says Yu, "it would be an important sacrifice. Think how busy they are! Yet, each has done more.

"It's frustrating," she says, brow furrowed. "I am doing so well now, and I would not be here without them. Yet there is nothing I can do for them that can repay everything they have done for me. Nothing! Nothing at all."

President Brody sees it differently. The surfeit of talent at Hopkins makes his stewardship worthwhile, he says, and putting it on display keeps it coming. Last month, when donors from around the globe met for their annual black-tie gala, he put Yu in the spotlight. Accompanied by Hyun-Sook, she ended the evening with four stunning songs, including "Widmung," Schumann's ode of gratitude. "What a performance," says Brody. "So heartfelt, so graceful. It reminded us of what we're about at Hopkins. I got letters, calls and e-mails for weeks."

If the response was resounding, what triggered it remains a mystery. The music world brims with talented practitioners. What separates a star from the rest? "You know it when you see it," says director Sirota. "I can tell you what it's not. It's not something you can teach. It's described as charisma, as the ability to communicate, the creative spark. I might call it the sacred in us all."

Maybe John Shirley-Quirk had those qualities in mind five years ago. The Peabody professor, a renowned bass-baritone, got a call from a venerated music teacher and conductor in search of talent. Half a century earlier, Blanche Honegger Moyse, a Swiss-born former violin prodigy, had helped found the Marlboro Music Festival, an annual gathering of top-rank concert artists at Marlboro College, near Brattleboro, Vt. Moyse, a Bach specialist, sought a soprano for a production of Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

Moyse, then 89, hadn't heard of Hyunah Yu, but when Shirley-Quirk recommended her, she put aside piles of audition tapes and drove from New England to meet her at New York's Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Yu knew the doyenne by reputation. A legendary taskmaster, she brooked no nonsense, offered scant praise and expected top-flight performance. She brought only her principal flutist, and it nearly floored Yu to learn that she'd have to sing Bach's "Aus Liebe," a "horrendously difficult aria, one of the most difficult ever written for a soprano." There was no practice and no piano accompaniment, only the flute -- which drops out altogether in several places.

"I don't think I was nervous, exactly," says Yu, "but I was so focused on just singing it right. Oratorios are sung with music, not memorized, so I had my eyes on the music, but I knew her ear was trained on me." When Yu finished, she heard Moyse say, without a moment's hesitation: "I want you to come work with me."

"That's all," says Yu, laughing. "Not, 'you have a beautiful voice;' none of that. It was just, 'I want you to come work with me.' After months and months of listening to tapes and auditioning other sopranos, she just said, 'OK.' "

In that moment, Yu knew her life had changed. She wept all the way back to Baltimore.

What Moyse had heard was more than a voice. "That is not so rare," she says in a thick Teutonic accent, speaking from her Brattleboro home. "I heard this lovely soprano, but I also saw a very attractive, intelligent, attentive girl. She listened; she was respectful. So many young sopranos get drunk on talent and do foolish things. They think they are there. But no one is ever there.

"I told her she had far to go, a great deal to do. Then I worked with my flutist for 20 minutes, going over phrasing, to show the precision I demand. She was enthusiastic. This instilled me with confidence. In the time since, she has proved my assessment correct."

Moyse took her to Marlboro that summer, where the eminent pianists Richard Goode and Mitsuko Uchida are artistic directors, attracting master performers and a few exceptional young professionals from around the globe.

The gregarious Yu made an impression, and within two years got the coveted call to return each year. She sang the St. Matthew Passion with Moyse at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art; connected with her current vocal coach, Benita Valente of Philadelphia; and through her connection to Uchida, was signed by one of the world's leading concert management agencies, Askonas Holt Ltd. of London, which represents the exalted likes of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and conductor Simon Rattle.

Over the past four years, she has won prizes at five international vocal competitions in North America and Europe, including the prestigious Walter Naumburg Competition in New York. Her opera and concert career has placed her on stages from Toulouse, France, to Montpelier, Vt., not to mention New York's Carnegie Hall. This year, she was one of four artists worldwide selected as fellows by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust, a new London-based foundation aimed at developing and sustaining the international careers of a select handful of young artists. Her first BBC recordings will be broadcast on Jan. 12.

Yu supporters seem most impressed by that interplay of control and surrender. Ken Noda, assistant to the director at the New York's Metropolitan Opera, has accompanied vocalists as eminent as opera legend Kathleen Battle, and he says that Yu equals that diva's remarkable discipline, preparation and perfectionism. Randall Scarlata, a baritone with whom she works at Marlboro, says singers train muscles as fervently as athletes do, and that Yu's drive has helped her develop an instrument of exceptional range, "a fine, light-lyric soprano with a warm middle register and gleaming high notes."

But surrender is an equal part of her musical gwanshin, just as it is in her life. Yu says she has learned from other artists, especially older ones, including her beloved Moyse. She listens to pop artists Faith Hill, Elton John and Celine Dion, who lack her vocal training but excel in communicating emotions. "My voice is not made for pop," she says. "But you can learn something from everybody. Everybody!"

Mostly, though, great artists yield to their experiences -- the richer, it seems, the better. The loss of Yeong and her willingness to live life fully since then seem to transform Yu's art. When Noda played with Battle on spirituals, he often asked himself where her sense of suffering came from. "It always struck me as very, very deep," he says, "so deep it must have been in her genes many lifetimes ago. I think what happened with [Yu's] husband is with her and will be forever. You can hear that, too. It is like a halo of human transcendence around and almost hovering above the sound she makes. Call it religion, if you will."

In the slanting natural light of a late afternoon, Jeung-Ja Park, 64, greets guests with a pot of lemon tea. Her grandson Daniel, now 11, takes on geometry at a kitchen table. In a study off the living room, David Park, also 64, ponders a coming sermon. He has started a new Korean congregation in the Loch Raven area; they're still renting space, and there is much to do. Here in their Baltimore County home, Yu is family member, not diva.

The man who prayed for this career of hers begins to speak of his family. Though God delivered it through events that would have ruined many families, he is far too wise to cling to bitterness. "Blessings come," says the pastor, his dark eyes gleaming, "in ways we don't always understand. Better to be grateful."

His daughter's virtuosity pleases Park. When President Brody played host for the family at her black-tie performance, the support gratified the pastor, but he winced in the spotlight. "Music is a joy," he says, "but celebrity can be confusing. If Hyunah sings to glorify God, I am happy."

If that's the case, he has few worries. The single mother looking over Daniel's shoulder has friends and mentors who keep her grounded. Life on the road is often lonely; while everyone she meets has good intentions, they can treat her as if she were precious. "I laugh and talk a lot," she says, "but otherwise, I just want to scream, 'I'm just like everybody else!' "

For now, Daniel is the most important person in her life. Though she worries she's away too much, the Gilman fifth grader is on his way to attaining her three hopes for him -- that he fear God, find independence and think of others first. He has played instruments since age 4, recently winning gold medals in Howard County and Maryland state piano competitions, but advanced work in writing and math suggest a third-generation Renaissance man. "He looks so much like his dad I don't need to hang pictures of Yeong around the house," says Yu, "but he's impressive in his own right. Daniel is Daniel."

Though she makes her living on a public stage, Yu finds satisfaction in exchanges that happen, like family conversations, in private. She remembers most fondly an elderly man who stood in a long line of admirers after a Marlboro concert. When he finally reached the show's star, he pumped her hand in gratitude. His wife had died six months before, he said, and until the moment he had heard her perform, he'd been unable to surrender his anger.

"When you were singing, I felt her touch me for the first time," she remembers him saying, tears filling his eyes. "Now I have hope. Thank you so much."

Her own well up now, as they did then. "If I have talent, it is a tool I have been given," she says. "This is so humbling. My role is not to find stardom. That is too complicated, and in the end brings no satisfaction. It is to develop that talent the best I can. And, as I have often told Daniel, that's all any of us can do. The rest is in God's hands."

Onstage at Marlboro, book of music balanced on her arm, she finishes her part in the Oratorio. The ultimate tale of transformation, it's a work to which Yu can give her all. That's doubly true today; this weekend marks the final occasion on which her mentor, Blanche Moyse, now 94, will ever conduct in the New England Bach Festival that she founded 34 autumns ago, the very year in which her young protege was born.

The soprano soars into an upper realm, sweeping Part VI, "The Festival of the Epiphany," to its culmination. "What now the terrors of Hell?" sings Hyunah Yu. "What can the world and sin do to us, when we rest in Jesu's hands?"

The reds and golds of highest October, visible through windows all around her, brighten the New England hills, illuminating stage, occasion and song. How has she ended up at the center of it all? As it has done throughout her life, beauty reveals itself, it seems, in all that passes away.

In gratitude, she sings.
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