Bong Ihn Koh ’08

Bong Ihn Koh ’08 might have picked up the cello at the age of seven and started his international career at the age of 12, but the winner of the 2008 Louis Sudler Prize ultimately does not want to be remembered as a great cellist. Rather than being famous merely for his skill with the strings, Koh dreams that, at the end of his career, he will be known as “an artist who used his talent as a musician to really change things.”

Yes, Koh is not your average cello prodigy. On top of maintaining an international career and earning degrees from both Harvard and the New England Conservatory, he is also a pre-med student and a researcher in the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Koh thinks that the tissue images he looks at in his work are “beautiful.” To him, they’re not separate from his art. “When I play, I need to express the artist’s life experiences,” he says. Music and life are part of the same continuum, not separate from each other. Even science is an art for Koh—the art of “interpreting data.”

Besides cellos and cells, Koh is also concerned about peace and cites exiled Korean composer Isang Yun as his source of inspiration. Although a native South Korean, Koh lived in Germany during his teens, where he learned of Yun. Listening to Yun’s music and biography, he realized that “where there’s pain, an artist needs to express that pain.”

“There’s a sense of depression in Korea,” Koh says. “Everybody is thinking about unification and the Korean pain.” Koh has tried to contribute his share by performing in North Korea. To his dismay, a scheduled performance was cancelled after the country conducted its nuclear test. But Koh has no plans of giving up his efforts, treating this subject with the same persistence that he dedicates to music and science. “As a Korean cellist, I will use my music as a weapon to promote peace,” he says.

And Koh’s music is certainly powerful. His talent has been recognized in Korea, Russia, and beyond. At the age of 11, Koh played with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra after winning a national competition for musicians. A year later, he won the Third International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in St. Petersburg, Russia, which led to his playing with numerous European orchestras.

Yo-Yo Ma ’76 also recognizes Koh’s talent and has taken him under his wing. Ma has acted as Koh’s mentor, assisting him when Koh decided to attend Harvard. Ma has supported Koh in his efforts to seek a joint concentration in both Music and Molecular and Cellular Biology. And now, when Koh is graduating from Harvard, Koh seeks Ma’s advice in deciding about his future as a musician and as a scientist.

Koh will open his performances in Arts First festival with Bach’s sixth suite, from which he played as a freshman in the commencement ceremony of 2006. He will play two double-concertos, one by Bach and one by Vivaldi. Joined by pianist Nora I. Bartosik ’08, he will close his four-show run with Beethoven’s first sonata, the piece that made him start playing cello.

And after how far he has come, how fitting is it that he return to his beginnings.

––Roy Cohen