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Playing an old tune: Isang Enders

Berliner solo cellist Isang Enders unwittingly followed the stereotypical, Asian-genius classical career path with raging success.

Image for Playing an old tune: Isang Enders

Photo by Lydia Goolia. Isang Enders achieved musical success without the “typical tiger-mum”.

It seems Isang’s career in classical music was meant to be. His German father and Korean mother were both musicians and named him after the famous composer Isang Yun. They started his piano lessons during his early childhood, and when his teacher suggested that he should consider the cello because of his “thick fingers”, they complied. “My mother wasn’t the typical tiger-mum type though,” says 31-year-old Enders. “They didn’t pressure me at all.” As he honed his skills as a teenager, his talent was soon detected and at only 20 years old, he was appointed principal cello of the Staatskapelle Dresden. Here, for the first time in his life, he felt the stares of strangers walking past him and heard racist insults like “Fidschi”. This came as a bit of a shock to him after growing up in metropolitan Frankfurt. In 2012, after four years as the orchestra’s first cello, he decided to pursue a solo career and although it meant some financial insecurity and month-long stints of couchsurfing, his new situation also gave him the chance to spend several months in Korea. “I am German through and through, but when I set foot in Korea for the first time as an adult, I immediately felt very comfortable, very much at ease,” he says. “I recognised smells that I remembered from when I would go to Korean church as a child.” It felt as if he was meant to visit the country, study the language and uncover his roots. In his personal life, too, things seem to make too much sense to have happened coincidentally: Enders’ wife Byol Kang, with whom he shares a home in Mitte, is the Austria-born daughter of Korean parents and a successful musician herself: the violinist works as concertmaster for the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester. And it doesn’t stop there: both Enders and Kang have played for Korean presidents. Kang remembers how proud their parents were when she played for the former Korean president, Lee Myung-Bak. “It was at Schloss Bellevue, and I got to take a picture with him and Germany’s then president Steinmeier. My family wasn’t there, but they shared the picture with everyone!” More recently, it was Isang’s turn: he played for the current South Korean president Moon Jae-In in Seoul, and the concert was broadcast on national TV and streamed over Facebook for his family to watch back in Germany. For him, it was only one international stop of many; he is currently touring the globe, playing concerts in the United States, the Netherlands and Ireland to name a few. He laughs: “I feel like all I’m doing right now is sitting on the TXL bus to the airport and back home!” Back at home, the connection to Korea remains strong. As per his wife’s wish, Enders bought a second fridge for the family’s apartment – dedicated entirely to kimchi! “Our son will definitely grow up on Korean food,” asserts Kang, glancing at the nearly six-months-old baby boy in her arms. But when it comes to musicianship, both new parents agree to not pressure their child into any profession. Even though their career choice has worked out well for them, they recognise that pursuing music full-time can be hard and is not for everyone. Either way, they agree it can’t hurt to teach him the basics on the piano – “just to get the brain started”. But, Enders adds, “there are so many other things to explore… like Korean studies! A cook would also be helpful, or a doctor. It’s always nice to have a doctor in the family.”