Hahn-Bin, the genre-bending violinist, a protégé of Itzhak Perlman's, will join guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen and the Seattle Symphony in the annual "Celebrate Asia" program on Feb. 24.

Share story

He’s been compared to other rare, iconoclastic virtuoso violinists in the classical-music world: Britain’s Nigel Kennedy, for instance, who dresses like a cabbie for concert performances.

But a more meaningful predecessor for 24-year-old violinist Hahn-Bin, performing with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra on Friday as part of SSO’s fourth annual “Celebrate Asia” event, is David Bowie.

A performance artist who once played in costumed character, making himself as much a medium of expression as his songs, Bowie felt liberated singing through an actor’s persona on the pop stage.

Hahn-Bin, given to gasp-inducing sleeveless kimonos, leopard-print tights, a teardrop-shaped Mohawk, plus masks and slinking choreography, understands the freedom of a customized image, of smashing boundaries between fashion, theater and music.

Most Read Entertainment Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“I sing through the violin,” he says by phone from New York. “In my recitals and full shows, I am breaking down the barriers between what is classical and what is pop, what is instrumental and what is vocal.

“It surprises me when I hear critics say what I do with fashion and makeup is pretentious. I say to them, I come from Seoul, South Korea. You think for me, with no connection to where tuxedos come from, that to put one on is not pretentious?”

Hahn-Bin’s choice of concert attire wouldn’t matter if his music were less than extraordinary. But this protégé of Itzhak Perlman (who played Benaroya Hall earlier this week) first picked up the violin at age 5, made his orchestral debut with the Seoul Philharmonic at 10 and performed at the Grammy Awards at age 12.

Perlman invited Hahn-Bin to join his studio at the Juilliard School in 2004. Hahn-Bin was never entirely at ease with Juilliard’s musical conformity, but he often speaks of Perlman as his reason for playing with joy. He also says Perlman is the only man in his life who has completely accepted him — a once-bullied boy uncomfortable with ethnic and gender-identity labels — for who he is.

“When I am performing,” he says, “all I think about is what I want to say. That is a drastically different approach from what is taught in conservatories, where you have to think about what the composer wanted.

“I argue that I’m there for the audience. They know that what’s coming from me on stage can only come from me. It’s my language, my message. There are so many barriers in your training as a concert violinist. But it was because of those boundaries I chose to create my own language. I believe so much in the power of classical music, and I believe audiences are ready to experience it in a way that is almost avant-garde.”

In 2009, he made his Carnegie Hall debut in his new, startling regalia and was praised by The New York Times for a “rich, varied tone and technical facility” and grace. For the artist, who played a time-traveling repertoire of Chopin and Cage, Mozart and Schnittke, that Manhattan event was a demarcation.

“It was meant to be the murder of my classical past,” he says, noting that he soon introduced a series of youth-oriented performance projects called “The Renaissance of Classical Music,” including “Soliloquy for Andy Warhol” and “The Five Poisons,” the latter inspired by Tibetan Buddhism.

“What I set out to do after Carnegie was create my own path, not belong to any industry. Creating my own artistic universe has been my only mission.”

The “Celebrate Asia” program includes guest conductor Mei-Ann Chen, music director of the Chicago Sinfonietta and the Memphis Symphony; acclaimed Chinese pipa player Jie Ma and Seattle’s Cuong Vu Group.

Hahn-Bin will perform Tchaikovsky’s beloved Violin Concerto in D minor.

“It was the first concerto I ever studied at Juilliard with Mr. Perlman,” he says. “I’ve never performed it live, but I feel such a connection to it. Tchaikovsky was gay, and in terms of the composer’s life, I share a lot of his emotional and personal struggle for identity. He was a composer who put everything onto paper in such an incredibly expressive and evocative way. Probably for the rest of my life I will have a deep connection with it.

“As an Asian American, I’m also very excited about ‘Celebrate Asia.’ There’s also the fact that Washington has just passed the gay marriage bill. I’m incredibly honored and proud to be coming to Seattle and celebrating, through my performance, all the minorities that exist within me, expressing the exuberance of all these identities forming a greater picture of who I am as a human being.”

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@gmail.com