On Tuesday 16 May, piano-lovers in Sydney were gifted a special treat with internationally-acclaimed South Korean pianist Yiruma performing live at the Sydney Opera House.
Yiruma, which is a stylised version of his real name Lee Ruma, travelled to the UK at age 11 to pursue music, where he studied piano at the Purcell School of Music and composition at King’s College London respectively. Over the years, he’s made a name for himself not only in music circles but also in the K-Pop scene, collaborating with various South Korean idols such as Super Junior’s Henry, Sistar’s Hyolyn, SHINee, and Ailee. Of course, he’s also performed across Asia, Europe, America and Oceania to sellout crowds – and tonight was no exception, with tickets sold out months before the concert.
Striding onto the stage and bowing to the adulant crowds, Yiruma launched straight into his first song of the night, “The Sunbeams, They Scatter”, accompanied by atmospheric lighting which resembled the rays of the sun. Although the track’s title references the sun, Yiruma pointed out that they were more like falling leaves – and it felt that way, a flurry of notes which resembled the dynamic warm hues of autumn.
“This is my second time performing at the Sydney Opera House,” he said, as he addressed the audience after his introductory song. “It’s the stage of my dreams.” Last year, Yiruma also performed at the Sydney Opera House to a full concert hall. This year, the crowd is double.
Despite that, Yiruma remains extremely humble, both in regards to his music and his language abilities. “My English is not that good so I’m talking slowly,” he says, in perfect English – and then cracks a joke. “Don’t misunderstand, it’s so you can understand me better. I can usually talk very fast…. but that’s in Korean.”
While he’s playing the piano, Yiruma exudes a graceful intensity which makes it difficult to tear your eyes away from him. But when he’s addressing the audience, he transforms into a humorous, down-to-earth guy; a different type of charisma. Throughout the night, he continued to entertain the audience not only with his piano skills, but his jokes as he spoke between songs. “This next song is from my album First Love. Yes, I’m married now. My wife isn’t very happy about this album… I tried to write a song for her but, ah, it wasn’t as good.”
The next two songs he played weren’t actually two songs, but four songs made into two. Combining “Love Me” with “Fairy Tale” (better known as one of the OSTs of popular drama Secret Garden), and “Dance” with “Heart”, Yiruma mixed together the music to create a new sound altogether. He explained that when he was composing ‘Dance’ and ‘Heart’, he travelled to Jeju Island – a small island located at the very south of South Korea – and imagined the dancing of nature as he wrote. The rhythm of triplets on the left hand and melody cutting through with the right evoked a feeling akin to walking through a forest, wind and sunlight filtering through the leaves.
There are two things that stand out about an Yiruma concert. The first is that he turns the focus to the audience and the individual – he doesn’t want the audience to view it as a traditional concert, but as a journey. “I don’t want you to think of this as a concert, but as a walk through your memories,” he said. He asked us to picture our most precious moments and relate the songs to moments in our lives; a period of reflection.
The second thing is that he never plays the same song in the same way. Listening to Yiruma’s recorded CDs is one thing, but listening to him live is a completely different experience. None of his songs on the night were played the way they were recorded for the albums or soundtracks – and this is something Yiruma acknowledged himself.
“If you notice, I have no score,” he said, and surely enough, the only papers in front of him were his speech notes. “My piano teacher said, ‘Yiruma, you’ll never become a piano player’, because I couldn’t stick to the score; I’d always add something or change something. But look at me now!” When he’s performing, he chooses to embellish and improvise as he wishes; the utmost expression of musical freedom.
This was certainly heard in the next combination. Yiruma pieced his song “May Be” together with “Love”, adding modulations into minor key to create a more melancholic sound, as opposed to the unembellished, light-sounding version of the recordings. He followed up with “Stay in Memory”, and then called on to the stage violinist Kim Sangeun, with whom he planned several duets. “Remember, he’s Kim Sangeun, not Kim Jongun,” he joked. “Even if they sound similar. He’s Mr. Kim and I’m Mr. Lee. Kim and Lee. The two most common last names in Korea.”
First was “Passing By”, followed by a combination of “Blind Improvisation” with “Destiny of Love”, the two instruments melding together perfectly, at times the violin taking centre stage and at times, the emphasis returning to the piano.
Next up was “Scenery”, a song which Yiruma has fond memories of. “This song reminds me of the textures of my own childhood. When I was little, I had a room, and there was a window, and through the window I could see the tree, and the road, and hear the sounds that came through it. This song captures the textures of what I felt during my childhood.”
And, the final song before intermission, one of his most famous tracks – “Kiss the Rain”. “I don’t know why people want to hear me play this song, because it’s so easy!” he exclaims. Cue incredulous chuckles from the audience. “The only thing I did different is that I’m the composer. But it’s a very easy song. Everyone, go home tonight and play this!”
“Kiss the Rain” is a simple and enjoyable song, the proficiency level needed to play the original sheet music perhaps an AMEB Grade 5 – but, as is Yiruma’s style, he proceeded to make the piece decidedly not easy by deviating from the score and improvising with added embellishments at the midway mark of the piece, complete with a soulful refrain from the violin.
The 20-minute intermission passed by at the blink of an eye, and Yiruma was back on, kicking straight off again with “Journey”.
“Intermission is always nerve wracking for me because I think no one is going to come back. So thank you for coming back!” he joked, as he finished the song.
This part was one of the highlights of the night. We know Yiruma is a genius composer – but what about creating music with someone in the audience? Right then, Yiruma announced he would compose a song on the spot based off the piano-playing of an audience member. Improvisation to the maximum! Hands shot up all across the hall as people vied to be chosen to go on stage.
“It’s better if you don’t play piano, then I can look better,” Yiruma joked, then chose a girl from the circle box behind the stage – who was so keen to go onstage that she almost climbed over the railing, before a staff member opened the barricade.
“What’s your name?”
“What would you like this song to be called?” he asked, as they both sat at the piano stool.
“How old are you?”
“19? I think you’d like Adele? Do you like Adele? Let’s call it 19.”
“No, let’s go with Julie.”
In the end, they stuck with “Julie”, and off they went – Julie starting off with a couple of notes, repeating them over and over, and Yiruma weaving a melody on top of it which grew increasingly intricate. No one could really believe that this was something that could be composed on the spot – but it was certainly a song we hadn’t heard before.
To thunderous applause, Yiruma escorted Julie off the stage after gifting her an album, and introduced his second accompanist of the night – guitarist Kim Minseok. Together, they performed a song Yiruma originally wrote for guitar, “Blind Film”, meshed with “Nocturne”, and a second song, “Chaconne”. The acoustic timbre of the guitar provided a contrast to the tones of the violin from earlier, and gave a more mellow touch to the music.
Yiruma continued on solo with “I”, a song which was used in the popular drama Winter Sonata, before delving into something a little more traditionally piano-concerto-feel with “Waltz in E Minor”.
At this stage, he called both the violinist and guitarist back on, to perform his arguably most famous song – “River Flows in You”. Internationally, many people would recognise this as the unofficial theme song for the film Twilight – but that is certainly not its original claim to fame, when it was released in 2001 as part of his ‘First Love’ album and hit the top of the charts, covered by countless music lovers. With the added touches of the guitar and violin, the three musicians created yet another unique rendition of this pop piano classic.
Officially finishing off the concert with the song “Indigo”, again featuring the guitar and violin, the soloists departed the stage to standing ovations, and Yiruma performed his song “Fotografia”, asking the audience to put down the cameras and take a photo with our memories. Not to fear though, the violinist Kim Sangeun came immediately back onstage for the encore, a duet called ‘Reminiscence’ – the original meant for piano and cello. While the sombre tones of the cello were missed, the violin produced a sharper, but equally mellifluous sound.
And, as a special gift to us, Yiruma performed his brand new song “F L O W E R”, which was just released on 15 May – the first time he’s performed the song live in front of an audience.
“Every time I write a new song I can’t tell the difference with my old songs anymore,” he joked. “They all sound the same! I can’t remember which is which anymore. I think I’m getting old. My belly is growing and I need to exercise more… I don’t really do much apart from sitting still and moving my fingers.”
On a more serious note, Yiruma explained the meaning behind the song. “Flower means peace,” he said. “There’s so much happening in the world right now, so many bad and unfortunate things. I want to give you a gift of a flower; a gift of peace.” Despite that, moments of the song felt melancholic and regretful – perhaps illustrating recent unhappy developments in the world that prompted him to write this song.
Without taking a break, and without disrupting the flow of the music, Yiruma cheekily segued straight into secondary Australian anthem “Waltzing Matilda” and encouraged the crowds to sing along – a special treat and homage to the Australian crowds he was playing for, and a very apt tune to close the night.
If you ever have a chance to see Yiruma live, it is well worth it. I dare say no two of his concerts are the same – he continually changes up the way he approaches songs, transforming rote into new imaginative mashups and collaborations. He plays around with his music so freely and does his best to make sure the audience understands the music, giving enough of a glimpse into his creation process that we can also relate to it.
I have no doubt in his upcoming concerts will be slightly different yet again with various improvisations – and that’s the sign of true musicality.
The Sunbeams, They Scatter
Love Me + Fairy Tale
Dance + Heart
May Be + Love
Stay In Memory
Blind Improvisation + Destiny of Love
Kiss the Rain
Blind Film + Nocturne
Waltz in E Minor
River Flows in You
F L O W E R