Last August, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced that it had filled two prominent jobs. Stephen Williamson, a seasoned performer who'd been with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra since 2003, would be the new principal clarinet.
That was welcome news, but it was the other hire that was the attention getter: violinist Stephanie Jeong of the New York Philharmonic would be the CSO's new associate concertmaster, the third most important slot in the orchestra hierarchy.
Jeong had been at the Philharmonic less than a full season. And that was her first job out of Juilliard, where she'd just completed a master's degree. When she took her seat next to concertmaster Robert Chen's on the CSO stage last September, she was 24 years old.
The stage was familiar, however. Jeong had been on it as a child, playing a pint-size instrument in the annual Orchestra Hall concert by students of the Betty Haag Academy of Music. And she'd made her debut there as a soloist with the CSO at the age of 12. By then she was based in Philadelphia, studying at the Curtis Institute. She'd been admitted to Curtis as one of its youngest students ever, when she was nine.
Jeong's parents came to the U.S. from Korea, where her mother had trained as a pianist and piano teacher. They stopped on the east coast (where Stephanie was born). At three, when they moved to Northbrook, she was already taking Suzuki lessons. She was seven when Betty Haag signed her up for a master class with Aaron Rosand (most recently in the news for selling his 18th-century Guarneri violin for $10 million), and after that, Jeong began commuting to Rosand's home in Connecticut for monthly lessons and practicing five or six hours a day.
When she was accepted at Curtis, where Rosand is on the faculty, her mother rented an apartment in Philadelphia and moved there with a younger son in tow. For the next decade, while Jeong's father remained in Chicago, the family juggled the distance.
Jeong began auditioning for the CSO about the time she graduated from Juilliard, in May 2010. Final auditions were set for the fall, when the Philharmonic was also auditioning. But in October, music director Riccardo Muti fell ill, famously dropping from a rehearsal platform, and the CSO finals were postponed. Before they were rescheduled, Jeong had been hired in New York.
But she hadn't given up on Chicago. "When this job opening was posted, I thought, what an opportunity: to go back home, be near my parents, and have such a fantastic position, in a great orchestra, working with maestro Muti. Nothing could be better."
She went through with a final audition on Valentine's Day last year, and when she got the job, the Philharmonic granted her a leave of absence while she tried it out. She officially resigned last month.
"My mom asked whether I felt she forced it on me. I'm sure there were times when I didn't want to be practicing. But kids need a little push. I don't regret one moment. And just because I have this amazing job, it doesn't mean that I can get comfortable and lazy, and just feel safe. I need to stay focused, keep up my practicing, and make sure that I'm still trying to improve myself as a musician every day, just as I did when I was a student."
Jeong and other CSO musicians will perform in a chamber music concert with Yo-Yo Ma at 3 PM Sunday, March 18. And she'll be the concertmaster (in Chen's absence) when the orchestra plays a program of Russian masters at 8 PM, March 22 and 24. Tickets and information are at cso.org.