Her left wrist quivers as her right hand pushes and pulls a horsehair bow over taut strings. A lock of shiny black hair flies across her brow, while her tiny body sways in time, a chin-thrust punctuating the end of the movement. The five-foot-one dynamo transports listeners to other worlds with her Vigato violin, but don’t call her a prodigy. “I feel happy when I hear that, but at the same time, I don’t know if that’s the right word for me,” shares the quiet 15-year-old. “I feel like a lot of people have expectations of that, and I don’t know if I can meet them. It’s not too heavy that I can’t bear it, but it weighs on me.” And how could it not?

Rachel Yi has been preparing for this month’s solo most of her life. On May 14, she’ll stand alone in the spotlight to perform Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64, with members of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra, as part of the Young Artist Orchestra’s season-ending show. “If you talk about violin technique, it’s not a very hard piece,” she elaborates. “Tchaikovsky and Paganini, those are hard for the fingers and bow. The hardest part for me with Mendelssohn is understanding what he’s trying to tell you through his phrasing—what was going on, and what kind of character he was portraying.”


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While most teens toy with the heart of their crush, Rachel is probing the head of a nineteenth-century German composer. “Rachel is rare,” explains Greenville County Youth Orchestra’s executive director Holly Caprell. “She has a finesse. She can finesse her instrument when she needs to. It’s easy to be technical. It’s harder to convey the emotional message, and she does. That’s an extraordinary thing for her age.” Caprell bestows even more praise upon the violinist for how she leads the elite student- musicians who compose GCYO’s Young Artist Orchestra. “What sets her apart from others that talented is that she’s very humble about it,” Caprell confides. “It’s refreshing when a young person with that amount of talent, at such a young age, doesn’t let it go to their head.”

The child of immigrants, Rachel balances old and new ways as easily as she runs her scales. At home, she speaks Korean, watches Korean variety shows and listens to K-Pop music. Her father works at General Electric, while her mother Min-Jung oversees her home- schooling. This allows the Simpsonville sophomore to practice five hours a day and attend the Fine Arts Center each afternoon for music classes. Rachel fills her limited free time with typical student activities: snap-chatting and “hanging out at the mall with friends.” Min-Jung admits she didn’t anticipate her daughter’s rare musical gift when she encouraged her to take violin lessons at age five. But mom believes she’s identified the source of her offspring’s skill, saying, “My husband, he loves music. He’s not a musician, but he loves to play the piano. Her love of music came from him.”

“Rachel is rare. She can finesse her instrument when she needs to. It’s easy to be technical. It’s harder to convey the emotional message, and she does. That’s an extraordinary thing for her age.” —Holly Caprell

 

Musicians of Rachel’s ability tend to leave the Upstate for brighter lights and bigger stages. The violin virtuoso hopes to one day attend Juilliard in New York City, or the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Such institutions are taking note after her first- place finishes at the Charleston Young Artist Competition and the South Carolina Music Teachers National Association Competition, in addition to appearances at Piccolo Spoleto and the Heifetz International Music Institute in Virginia.

Rachel picks up her bow, turns the page on her practice piece and states, “I want to share with as many people as possible, the amazingness, the beauty of the music. As a performer, I want to be a connector to Classical music and the audience; I want to share a story that is really interesting, so they can see what Classical music is all about.” Encore! Encore!

Originally published May 2016.