Guardian Angel’s music director shares talents with the community

Dr. Hyunki Yoon

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Dr. Hyunki Yoon is well-known and well-liked at both Guardian Angel’s Parish, where he serves as the Music Director and Rockhurst University, where he is an Adjunct Professor of piano, pianist for Musica Sacra and Liturgical Musician for the Campus Ministry Department. After earning his Bachelor’s Degree in Music from Chugye University for the Arts in Seoul, which he said is like a Conservatory, he moved to the United States from South Korea in 2009 to work toward his Master’s Degree in Music at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and America became his second homeland. He then came to Kansas City to work toward a Doctorate in Musical Arts at the Conservatory of Music/UMKC, graduating this past May.

He sat down with the Catholic Key newspaper to share his story.

Hyunki Yoon was born into a Catholic family in 1982. French missionaries arrived in Korea in the 19th century, and today many Koreans are Catholic, he said. It was very natural for him, his sister and their friends to attend their parish Youth Mass every Saturday. He auditioned for and became a cantor while still in elementary school. He was 10 years old. After he graduated from high school, he served as a volunteer Sunday school teacher, and continued volunteering until he moved to the U.S. five years later. The bishop gave him a rosary ring in recognition of his five years of service, which he still wears.

“When I was a kid,” Yoon said, “the ‘after-school academy’ was very popular. In Korea, most students still do extra learning after school in English, Math, swimming, piano, violin … like American students do after-school sports and other activities. It is common that Korean students go to a “private academy” to learn extra after school. Piano was and is still popular in Korea. Koreans think music education is good for developing kids’ emotional abilities and thinking creatively.”

He estimated that 90 percent of Korean kids wanted the opportunity to learn piano, therefore “going to piano academy was just natural when I was a kid. My mom registered my older sister and me for piano lessons. My sister didn’t like it, but I did, so mom sent me to a college professor for more serious study.”

He said that compared to other instruments, pianos were not very expensive to buy for children to learn and practice. But, in the 1990s actually having an upright piano in the home wasn’t very popular. Yoon’s mother “liked classical music and she recognized I liked it too so she bought the piano when I was 10 years old. Mom switched my piano teacher to one who would come to our house and teach me. I stopped to go to academy and practiced the piano at home.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree from a conservatory-like university in Seoul and wanted to attend a bigger state university for his master’s degree. A friend recommended he apply to audition to study at the University of Missouri-Columbia and when he was accepted, he was given the opportunity to work as a graduate teaching assistant which waived the full tuition. He met Dr. Peter Minamoto, “a great teacher and professional pianist. He was my piano teacher and supported me a lot. I had a great time at Mizzou and still believe my decision was great.”

While working on his master’s and Doctoral degrees, Yoon performed in several competitions with good reviews. “Marvelous mood, spirit and model of clarity and good sense” was the description from judges at the 2014 American Prize competition where he was the third-place winner of the concerto division and a winner of the solo piano division.

In 2015, he was a second-place winner in the American Protégé International Competition. That same year, he made his Carnegie Hall debut and performed with the Ho Chi Minh City Ballet Symphony Orchestra and Opera at the Ho Chi Minh City Opera House.

He did a tour in Europe in the summer of 2016, featuring performances at the Korean Kulturhaus Österreich (Korean Culture Center in Vienna), Bezirksmuseum Floridsdorf (Vienna Museum-Concert Hall); Saint Michael’s Church in Budapest, Hungary; Kefestast (Catholic Music Festival) in Brno, Czech Republic; and Cultural Centre Kunsthause-Berlin-Marbella in Spain.

“Playing in front of a big audience I’m always nervous and excited,” he said. “I believe that music is the language to communicate with an audience. They make performers stand up on the stage. So I always thank those who come to my recitals.”

He said pianists are under pressure to memorize the music for a one-hour performance, a unique tradition in the classical music field because with other instruments, the artist can look at their music. “In 2014, before my debut at Carnegie Hall in New York City, I had a bad dream that I forgot the notes during the concert. But it was just dream. The concert was great.”

His mom, dad, older sister, brother-in-law and 3-year-old nephew all live in Seoul. “I have a great relationship with my family and we talk often with our smartphones. We take a family trip every year. We went Thailand last year. For my doctoral graduation, my mom, sister and my nephew visited the USA and afterward, we went Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. My dad and brother-in-law were busy so they couldn’t come.”

His dad was a chemical engineer and his mom owned a Korean restaurant. They retired after his mom had colon cancer in 2008. The restaurant re-opened after she heard her cancer was completely gone.

“That was very difficult time. I still remember the moment at the airport when I moved to the USA. I cannot forget it because my mom cried a lot. I still feel guilty that I feel I ran away from our family to find a new chapter in my life even though they don’t think this way. I really wanted to invite my family to the USA so I did this May.”

When it is time to relax, he likes to cook and introduce friends to Korean foods. He also enjoys the diversity of nature in the Midwest. “In Missouri and Kansas, we have great nature,” he said. “There are so many ways to experience nature in the Midwest. . . I think we have beautiful nature with amazing skies in the Midwest.” A big smile lit his face. “I like to go to the winery at Rocheport because I like wine. I also like to have go camping, hiking and kayaking with my friends.”

What is it about Kansas City that attracts him? “I came from Seoul where more than 10 million people live. Including the metropolitan area, it would be 25 million. Absolutely, Kansas City is quite a small city to me. However, we have many cultural areas. I am a musician, so I always like to go Kauffman Center to see musical events, and eat at their restaurant, The Dining Experience, before the concert to hang out. Also, I like to go to the Nelson Art Gallery and museum where I can enjoy the overlaps between traditional things and the modern architecture. Rozzelle Court is an awesome place to relax with wine and light dishes,” he added.

He feels that “most people I work with at Guardian Angels Parish, Rockhurst University and UMKC, they know what the important things are that make our lives better, how to live together without discrimination, how to make a more multi-cultural and diverse city. I believe there will be many opportunities to develop America into a more mature and welcoming country that accepts differences.”

Dr. Yoon is an associate director of the Eine Ensemble in Korea. “I regularly talk with Dr. Young Kim, Music Director of the Eine Ensemble, by smartphone and Face-time,” he said. “Eine Ensemble is non-profit organization. All members are professional musicians who teach at the college or have their own music studio. We like to share our musical talents with others.

“Every year, Dr. Kim and I create two primary concert plans. One is a regional concert inside South Korea and other is international concert outside South Korea. Inside Korea, we had concerts for disabled people and migrants and refugees who moved to South Korea for their new life chapter. In the future, we would like to have concerts for single moms and dads with their kids, families with Alzheimer’s or cancer, and multi-cultural families and their kids.

“Outside Korea, we have a clear purpose. There are not many chances to listen to Korean music in western countries, therefore I would like to present Korean music and introduce Korean composers to western audiences. This concert project will hopefully make the classical music field a more diverse and more varied one and I believe that to feel and appreciate cultural differences is the one of the pleasures of music.

“As a goal for my future, I would like to have more opportunities to perform this music and export my own heritage throughout the United States and Europe, to introduce Korean Music to Western audiences.”

There are concerts in his future. “In September 2019, Eine Ensemble and I will have concerts at the Asian Center, University of Missouri – Columbia and the Korean Performing Arts Festival at the University of Missouri – Saint Louis,” he said.

Does he plan to remain in America? “I moved to the USA in June 2009. I have studied here, work here and have lots of lovely friends who support me, including Father Robert Hagan, SJ, whom I consider my American grandfather, and his family. I do not have a plan to move out.

“My colleagues at Rockhurst University and friends from UMKC and Guardian Angels, never treated me differently as a foreigner. They always cared about me the same as they care for other; same as Americans. That is huge to a foreigner living in a different country. They helped me to get inside the American community and society, and I deeply appreciate it. I want and need to give back something for all I have gained here in the Midwest.”


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October 30, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph