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(Yonhap Interview) For boost of energy, virtuoso violinist turns to hockey

2017/11/09 14:00

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By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 9 (Yonhap) -- The serene act of playing the violin and the rough-and-tumble sport of hockey don't exactly go together like peanut butter and jelly. You wouldn't necessarily associate one with the other.

But that's precisely why South Korean virtuoso violinist Park Ji-hae plays hockey in her spare time, or even when she barely has much spare time at all. When she's drained from recitals and international tours, Park doesn't just lie down and sleep for hours on end. She plays hockey, a sport that she calls her source of fuel and energy.

"After playing music for so long, I found myself just going through the motions at times, and I needed to reinvigorate myself," Park told Yonhap News Agency in her practice room in Seoul on Wednesday. "I'd always loved skating, and I wanted to find something that was the complete opposite of playing violin. I settled on hockey."

   Park is also a figure skating aficionado, but hockey particularly appealed to her because it's a team sport.

This photo provided by Haewa JHP shows South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae pose with her instrument. (Yonhap) This photo provided by Haewa JHP shows South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae pose with her instrument. (Yonhap)

"I am usually by myself with the violin on stage," she said. "And I loved the idea of playing with others on ice."

   Park, 32, was named an honorary ambassador for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics on Monday. The move might have raised the eyebrows of people who didn't know Park's background as a winter sports-loving soloist and a fan of the National Hockey League (NHL) who owns a Washington Capitals No. 8 Alex Ovechkin jersey.

Months before her appointment as a goodwill spokesperson for PyeongChang 2018, Park produced a music video to promote the first Winter Olympics to take place in South Korea. The video is set to "Jihae Ariang," her violin cover of the traditional Korean folk song, and starts with Park gliding on the ice as she plays her instrument.

It all seems harmless and innocuous enough. Then about a minute into the clip, Park picks up her gym bag and a hockey stick and heads to a rink for a game with the boys.

The game in the video may well be staged, but watching Park deftly move through larger men and put the puck in the back of the net, it's easy to see she isn't just a token female.

The video ends with Park and her fellow hockey players shouting words of encouragement and support for PyeongChang 2018.

"I didn't make the video just to show people how well I can skate," said Park, who's planning a second video in support of the Winter Olympics. "I wanted to let people know that there is this violinist who actually enjoys hockey, and people who aren't professional or Olympic athletes still support PyeongChang."

   Park grew up playing violin in Mainz, Germany, from an early age, under the influence of her violin-playing mother Lee Yeun-hong. And when she became old enough to go to school, Park's parents sent her to South Korea so that their daughter wouldn't forget the Korean language.

This photo provided by Haewa JHP shows South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae (C) performing in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo provided by Haewa JHP shows South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae (C) performing in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Germany boasts a much longer tradition in skating and winter sports in general, but ironically enough it was in South Korea that Park learned how to skate.

Park said as a child she spent a lot of time watching the Winter Olympics with her father, and the quadrennial competition was "a festival" for her family. Then during one winter break from school in South Korea, Park learned that a local rink was offering a special two-month lesson for students.

She signed up and hasn't looked back since.

"I was the kind of kid who would rollerblade around the whole neighborhood after school every day," Park recalled. "And ice skating wasn't that difficult for me."

   As a grown-up, Park picked up hockey in search of a boost away from music. She walked on to her amateur club, Blizzard, to the surprise of many already on the team. Most players had come through the introduction of mutual friends, and Park, the only woman on the roster, said she was initially seen as a curiosity at best.

But it didn't take long for her teammates to recognize Park's unbridled passion for the sport.

This photo provided by Haewa JHP shows South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae (C) in her hockey gear. (Yonhap) This photo provided by Haewa JHP shows South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae (C) in her hockey gear. (Yonhap)

"They now tell me I am probably No. 1 on the team when it comes to love of hockey," said Park, who said she once played every day during a weeklong break in Korea from her international tour. "It's such an addictive sport. I am actually glad I am not all that good at it. If I were better at hockey, I'd be even more hooked on it."

   Though playing hockey usually comes with major risks of injuries, Park said her amateur league isn't all that physical. And hockey just may be safer than figure skating because of protective gear.

Park told a story of a hand injury she once suffered in figure skating practice. She lost her balance during a spin and broke her fall with her right hand. She was diagnosed with a fracture but Park misunderstood her doctor's words and thought she'd only suffered a sprain. Instead of a full cast, Park only put on a half cast and continued with her violin performances.

"I was sweating a lot on stage because the arm hurt," Park said, now smiling at the memory. "But I could still play through the pain."

   Park said she'd dreamed of becoming a figure skater while at elementary school. But she soon realized it was going to be difficult to become a world class figure skater in a country that had never produced anyone who could compete against the best of the best. At least in violin, Park got an early start and had the advantage of learning from her mother, an accomplished violinist herself.

This photo provided by Haewa JHP shows South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae (C) in her hockey gear. (Yonhap) This photo provided by Haewa JHP shows South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae (C) in her hockey gear. (Yonhap)

And if Park had gone down the route of competitive sports, it might well have been a loss for the classical music community. As much as she loves putting on skates, Park isn't about to quit her day job as a fine soloist.

Park made her European solo debut with the Mainz Chamber Orchestra at 14. And when she was 17, the German Foundation of Musical Life lent Park a rare Petrus Guarnerius 1735 Venedig violin. Only three of this model are known to exist today, and each is estimated to be worth millions of dollars.

Park was admitted to a prestigious music conservatory in Mainz at 14. The place had only accepted students 16 and older before making an exception for the prodigy. She captured the first prize at the Jugend Musiziert, the German national youth music competition, in 2001 (solo) and in 2002 (chamber music).

Then in October 2011, Park became the first South Korean to perform in a season-opening show at Carnegie Hall in New York City. In that performance, Park played Camille Saint-Saens' "Danse Macabre," famous among South Korean sports fans as the music for the gold medal-winning short program by figure skating icon Kim Yu-na at the 2009 world championships.

Park said she chose "Danse Macabre" -- and she continues to play it often in her recitals -- because of what it means to the South Korean people.

"Here Kim Yu-na was, from a country never before known as a figure skating hotbed, and she finally reached the top of the world against all odds with so much hard work and dedication," Park said. "And this was the piece that accompanied her to the top. Kim's win inspired so many people that they too could overcome challenges and reach great heights. And it made people so proud. I want to be able to bring that emotion back for my audience."

   Park is a long-time admirer of Kim, the 2010 Olympic champion and one of South Korea's greatest athletes ever in any sports. On the men's side, Park was mesmerized by Alexei Yagudin's gold medal performance at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. In Park's words, the Russian star was "so masculine and charismatic, and still wonderfully artistic."

  

South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae (R) takes a plaque from Lee Hee-beom, head of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics organizing committee, after being named the event's honorary ambassador in a ceremony in Seoul on Nov. 6, 2017. (Yonhap) South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae (R) takes a plaque from Lee Hee-beom, head of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics organizing committee, after being named the event's honorary ambassador in a ceremony in Seoul on Nov. 6, 2017. (Yonhap)

Park is a fan of another Russian athlete -- Ovechkin, the Capitals' high-scoring All-Star. The three-time winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player, Ovechkin has led the league in goals six times in what is shaping up to be a Hall of Fame career.

During her U.S. tour in 2016, Park made a stop in Washington and had a chance to see the Capitals and Ovechkin in action. It was her first NHL game in person.

Unfortunately for Park and other hockey fans, Ovechkin and the rest of NHL stars won't participate in the PyeongChang Olympics. The league announced in April it won't send its players to South Korea and the schedule for the current 2017-2018 doesn't include an Olympic break.

But Park still wants to catch some hockey action -- namely, the South Korean women's team. The upstart nation, ranked No. 22, will make its Olympic debut against three top-10 nations in the group stage: No. 5 Sweden, No. 6 Switzerland and No. 7 Japan.

The captain of the national women's team, Han Soo-jin, is a former classical pianist. Though Park and Han have never met each other, the violinist said she does have a soft spot in her heart for Han's team.

"I'd love to go cheer on our women's hockey team," Park said. "It'd be great to watch medal favorites in sports like short track or skeleton. But if I had to squeeze time out of my schedule to see the Olympics, I'd go to women's hockey games."

  

This photo provided by Haewa JHP shows South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae performing in a recital. (Yonhap) This photo provided by Haewa JHP shows South Korean violinist Park Ji-hae performing in a recital. (Yonhap)

Now that she is an honorary ambassador for PyeongChang, Park said she would love nothing more than to perform during the Olympic opening ceremony. Even if that opportunity doesn't materialize, she is still looking forward to promoting PyeongChang 2018 and South Korea as a whole the best way she knows how -- through music.

"I really want to show the world the best of what Korean music can offer," she said. "I want to remind everyone that Koreans are a proud people. And like the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics will be an opportunity to raise our country's global profile."

   jeeho@yna.co.kr

(END)

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