While also featuring folkloristically-inspired works by David Burge and Jean Ahn, the heart of VARIATIONS ON A THEME BY STEFAN WOLPE is the similarly-titled work by Robert Gross, spanning no less than twenty variations on a theme by Stefan Wolpe, the German-American interdisciplinary modernist. Sprawling yet precise, decisive yet eclectic, it’s the perfect canvas for pianist Koeun Grace Lee, and the resulting symbiosis is mesmerizing.

Today, Koeun is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our composers and performers. Read on to learn about her in-depth performance preparations, and why she believes music expresses and empowers human emotions in sound…

What advice would you give to your younger self if given the chance? 

I wish I had been acting my age at each phase of growing up, as I often overworked to be more mature than my age. As the elder of two, it has been only natural to carry the big-sister characteristics everywhere, such as being on good behavior, being compassionate at all times, and listening to others more than myself. While none of that is wrong, I wish I had been more direct in addressing my beliefs and advocating for myself on my terms. 

I never doubted the importance of listening and following instructions during my studies, but overdoing so prevented me from thinking outside the box. Expressing oneself in music is a notorious process with no right or wrong answer, and I wish I had been persistent in my musical perspective sooner. If I had been more self-centered musically when I was younger, I would have had more transparency in expressing myself in music.

How do you prepare for a performance?

The repertoire selection is the most important part before setting up a practicing schedule for my performance. The selection process is similar to picking clothes. The repertoire must best suit me physically and visually. What I mean by visually is that the audience should be able to see that I am part of the music I am performing in addition to the technical aspect of the performance. I need to have enough preparation time to think about the composers’ intentions and find ways to communicate with the audience through my interpretations.

I also believe in the first sight and impression of certain music I fall in love with, and that motivates me to perform or completely the opposite. I promptly give up on some compositions that do not best fit me. I intend to program a well-balanced repertoire in terms of variety and duration; the base is concise and fast, slow and lyrical, and/or a combination of the two for not too long a time.

What emotions do you hope listeners will experience after hearing your work?

While human emotions are complex to define in exact words, music expresses and empowers them in sound. With what the world has been through for the past several years, music generated intangible yet indefinite value to explore and work through our emotions more than ever.

I want the listeners to have just enough interest to think back about my music sometimes after hearing it, whether it was a pleasing experience to their ears or not. I cannot always satisfy every listener, it’s not humanly possible, and listeners have the right to choose what music they prefer to listen to again. I only hope to motivate them, even remotely, to continue appreciating music and be open to various points of view while listening.

Explore Koeun Grace Lee’s Latest Release



VARIATIONS ON A THEME BY STEFAN WOLPE is available now from Navona Records. Click here to visit the catalog page and explore this album.