Imagine Andy Warhol, or Lady Gaga, and maybe also Liberace. Why? Because that will make it easier to imagine Amadéus Leopold.
Leopold (birth name Hanjin Yoo) is a Korean-born violinist. He’s a protégé of the celebrated violinist and conductor Itzhak Perlman. He’s played at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center and at other prestigious venues.
Those credentials would be enough to make Leopold a violinist of rank in the classical music scene. But the 27-year-old New York resident is simply too unusual to be pigeonholed as yet another talented young soloist. His performances aren’t limited to playing the violin – they’re also visually and theatrically arresting. All that is by design, as he devises his own scenarios, and carefully selects his costumes and makeup.
Houstonians will have a chance to decide what they think of Leopold on Friday, when the Society for Performing Arts Houston presents his show, “Edward Violinhands,” at the Wortham Theater Center.
“As an artist,” Leopold explains, “I would say I consider life to be an opera – and my role in that opera would be a storyteller, walking a tightrope between music, poetry and theater.”
Is Leopold real or a phony? Or, like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is he a “real phony?” To put it more delicately, he might best be described as “self-invented.” (His chosen name is a mashup of Mozart and the great violinist Leopold Auer.) And he takes his work-in-progress persona seriously.
He’s been called a performance artist – and in some ways that makes sense. Yet, Leopold is quick to point out that he’s first and foremost a violinist.
“I’m a classical musician,” he politely says. “I wake up every morning and practice Bach for an hour.”
He continues: “Being born in Korea and coming to America, there was a period in my life where I realized the only way I could communicate with people and be understood was through my fingers. The language of classical music became who I am. I’ve devoted my whole life to sharing with my audience my passion, love and devotion.”
Perlman, who taught Leopold for more than a decade, endorsed him in a New York Times interview as “an extremely talented violinist who is very, very individual.”
However, not everyone in the tradition-bound world of classical music is an admirer. One Australian music magazine called him “kooky.” And in the Los Angeles Times, music critic Mark Swed wrote, “Leopold is a young artist looking for a way to express himself, and has fallen into a trap of pop culture clichés.”
Of course, Leopold is well aware he’s controversial. And he says that he’s sometimes the victim of critical pre-judgment.
“It’s been interesting,” he says, “to see certain members from the classical-music sphere, who have not seen a single performance by me, get all riled up about my approach. Either that, or they take my alter-egos at face value.”
Leopold also doesn’t see any need to separate classical music from other forms of artistic expression.
“I’m interested in any and all artists – I grew up watching a lot of films and opera, and going to theater. And I consider classical music to be very pop. I don’t really see a line between the two.”
As for his upcoming Houston performance, Leopold describes it as “first and foremost, a virtuoso violin recital, to celebrate classical music. It’s also a story of coming to terms with life.” The program includes shorter works for violin and piano by J.S. Bach, Gabriel Fauré, Franz Liszt, Béla Bartók, Marice Ravel and others.
The show’s name, “Edward Violinhands,” is derived from the film Edward Scissorhands, starring Johnny Depp. Leopold saw the movie when he was 8 years old – and the surreal story of alienation made a deep impression on him.
“That’s who I am!” Leopold declares. “I am Edward Violinhands!”
© Colin Eatock 2015