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Emily Sun goes back to where it all began

08 September, 2023

As she prepares to perform with the Sydney Symphony this week, violinist Emily Sun reflects on her remarkable career a decade on from her first appearance at the Sydney Opera House in Mrs Carey’s Concert.

By Hugh Robertson

Very few musicians ever make it as far as the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. Even fewer can boast that they performed in that hallowed hall as a teenager. But Emily Sun isn’t your average soloist.

That dream came true for Sun far earlier than anyone expected thanks to a documentary made about her high school music teacher. Mrs Carey’s Concert followed Karen Carey and the music department of a Sydney girls’ school as they prepared for their bi-annual Sydney Opera House concert, and the star of the show is an aspiring young violinist who is to perform Bruch’s demanding Violin Concerto No.1…

It’s no spoiler to say that that violinist was a young Emily Sun, and her performance is the triumphant moment of the film. Sun has since built a career as a globe-trotting soloist, teaching at London’s Royal Academy of Music and having music written for her by some of the world’s leading composers. But she admits she is pinching herself at the thought of returning to the Sydney Opera House this September to perform Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 – but this time with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and renowned English conductor Mark Wigglesworth.

‘This feels like coming full circle,’ says Sun in the Northern Foyer of the Sydney Opera House, on a recent perfect late-winter's day. ‘For me to come back – not as a student, as a professional – coming back to the same concert hall in my home city and actually playing the same piece that made me realise this was what I wanted to do with my life…It’s perfect.’

Sun and her older sister both played instruments from an early age, and as a violinist growing up in Sydney they would come to Sydney Symphony concerts and dream about the day when they might perform on the stage of the Sydney Opera House.

‘I grew up coming to Sydney Symphony concerts, both the education concerts with Richard Gill that used to be at Angel Place, and of course concerts at the Opera House,’ she recalls with a broad smile. ‘I grew up with these iconic Opera House stairs, this stage and this orchestra.’

‘Every time I play with the Sydney Symphony it’s a ‘pinch me’ moment. When I’m coming up the stairs outside, or into the foyer, it takes me back to who I was when I was growing up, looking up at these musicians, thinking, ‘I really want to do that one day.’

A real-life example of the power of music education, Sun says it was that high school concert that convinced her she could be a soloist.

‘Standing on the Sydney Opera House stage playing such an amazing work, like the Bruch Violin Concerto – so rich, so passionate – and hearing the orchestra behind me… It was just a school orchestra, but they played with the same passion and the same guts. It really was the moment where I thought, ‘this is really what I want to be doing and this is what I want to achieve’.’

Nicola Benedetti with Wynton Marsalis
Violinist Emily Sun.

Naturally, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No.1 also holds a special place in Sun’s heart. But she’s not alone in that – the work is among the best-loved in all of classical music, regularly ranking at the top of audience polls like the ABC Classic 100.

As someone who knows the work as well as anyone, it is revealing to hear Sun describe the piece, and give her thoughts on why it is so loved.

‘I think it's to do with the human connection of the music,’ she says. ‘That first movement is sort of searching, which I feel is a real representation of a lot of what we go through in life: you're not always sure. I think that's a real reflection of what a lot of us might feel in life every day. And to just experience that in music I think is very special.’

‘And then it goes straight into the second movement without any pause. So it's almost like all of that searching, and then this is where we arrive. And then, of course, the virtuosic third movement, which is just so much fun to play.’

There are times in this concerto, Sun admits, where she wishes she could be back in the audience. ‘What's amazing about this concerto is not only does it have these incredible violin solo lines, it’s got the most rich and amazing tutti lines. Sometimes I just want to turn around and listen to the orchestra play it. And then I remember, “Oh, wait, I’ve got to come in now, too.”’

‘You just can't get sick of playing it,’ she says with a broad smile. ‘You discover something new every time.’

It is clear from speaking with Sun that she feels the music very deeply, and she wants to communicate that love and passion to the audience as directly as possible. She is aided in this by her stunning violin, a 1760 Nicolo Gagliano that has been her constant companion for the past few years. While not as well-known today as Antonio Stradivari or Giuseppe Guarneri, the Gaglianos were a revered violin-making family in Naples across four generations.

‘It’s a very, very special instrument,’ says Sun.

‘It is a very special connection that you have with a violin – it’s not like a pianist where they have to change all the time. This instrument is with me all the time, on my back, travelling with me on the plane, wherever I'm going. And this is my voice. This is what I use to express anything that I want to say.’

When asked what it is about older string instruments that is so special, Sun pauses to consider the question.

‘It’s a really interesting question,’ she says, finally. ‘I could go into it and say that it’s the age of the wood, and there are so many scientific reasons. But for me, I think the reason they sound different is each person who plays a violin, I feel like we impart a little bit of ourselves into the instrument. If you think about the legacy or the history of an instrument like this, how many hundreds of violinists would have played it? And it's almost like a little bit of them went into it every year.’

So I think for me that's why playing on an instrument this old is so special. It's so remarkable because I feel like you're holding the history of hundreds of violinists before you in your hands.’

Sitting in the Sydney Opera House, surrounded by all this rich personal history, one has to ask – what would Emily of today say to her 15-year-old self, struggling with trying to discover herself as a musician and as a person all at once?

Sun laughs at the question, but there is great warmth and empathy in her voice when she answers. ‘I would say, ‘keep practising, keep working, keep believing in the power of music’.

That is such an important responsibility for all of us musicians. Music really touches people’s lives and we have to keep going and bringing this incredible music alive every day.

‘Especially live performance – there’s something really palpable in the air when you're sitting there with the performers and the audience. Whatever happens in that moment literally cannot be recreated. It can't be the same. To be in that space together is incredibly powerful. So you definitely don't want to miss out.’