All-female Korean string quartet on defying the doubters, and becoming the Blackpink of classical music

All-female Korean string quartet on defying the doubters, and becoming the Blackpink of classical music
  • As the Esme Quartet prepare for their Hong Kong debut, the leader of the group talks about defying the doubters as women from Asia, and the group’s tight bond
  • Formed seven years ago when its members were studying in Germany, the quartet, having won major international prizes, is focused on becoming more original

For their Covid-delayed debut in Hong Kong, the award-winning Esme Quartet will begin with a joke – or rather, “The Joke”, as Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major is known.

The four Korean-born female musicians who make up the quartet are eager to bring lightness and joy to the city during this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, the first since the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions.

Their recital on February 28 will be followed by a performance on March 4 with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and two Hong Kong choirs called “Voices of Hope and Togetherness”, when they will play the American contemporary composer John Adams’ Absolute Jest. They will also provide the live music for February 24’s theatre performance The Book of Water.

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Don’t get the Esme Quartet wrong – the Germany-based foursome are keen to show Hong Kong audiences that they are capable of playing the most challenging music after years of gruelling training, their leader says.

“Many audiences in Europe still seem to be surprised that performances by ‘four Asian women’ could be this powerful,” first violinist Bae Won-hee tells the Post.

Such prejudices have only made them stronger and tightened their bond. Whenever they see remarks such as “the quartet will disband once one of them gets married”, they become more determined to prove people wrong, she says.

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The Esme Quartet have been together since 2016, when Bae, violist Kim Ji-won and cellist Heo Yee-un were music students together in Germany. They were joined by second violinist Ha Yu-na, then studying in France, who moved to Germany.

Ha, Kim and Heo had known each other in South Korea while attending the prestigious Seoul National University together. Heo and Kim were members of a student quartet there at one point. Heo and Bae met at the Cologne University of Music and Dance in Germany and became friends.

In their first year together the quartet practised for up to 10 hours a day – for what was initially meant only as a graduation project. Knowing that it would be tough to keep a full-time quartet going, they thought of disbanding soon after they obtained enough credits for their university programmes.

However, Bae, who had nurtured a desire to form a quartet since going to a concert by the Belcea Quartet at London’s Wigmore Hall when she was a student, could tell that all four of them had a mutual passion for chamber music.

She convinced Ha, Kim and Heo to invest their careers and lives in the quartet, and gave the group its name, derived from an old French word meaning “being loved”.

“It was hard training,” says Bae, as they tried to create a “perfect” sound for the group. They would play for five hours without a break, she recalls, because they were all “obsessed” and wouldn’t give up until they were satisfied.

I have heard that some women-only quartets have been inspired by us. I feel a huge responsibility
Bae Won-hee, Esme Quartet

The practice paid off. In 2018, the quartet won the triennial Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition in London, as well as four other prizes at the competition. At that point their average age was 27, which was relatively young for a quartet playing at an international level.

A YouTube video of the group went viral in 2020, as they exhibited during a television game show a level of synchronisation not unlike the perfect choreography of K-pop idols.

With each player wearing headphones blasting out loud K-pop music, they were asked to play classical music relying on just their eyes and body language for coordination. They did it perfectly even though they couldn’t hear each other.

“We have trained together for so many years we can sense each other even if it is a small movement in facial muscles or the rhythm of our breaths,” Bae says.

Their shared cultural background and language makes it easier for them to talk through each piece of music together, she says.

After years of travelling, eating and working together they have become more than a family, Bae says. “I think we just genuinely enjoy trying something together.”

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As the quartet enters its seventh year, the women’s focus is on how to become more original – “to create our own work”, Bae says – and play a role in contributing to the development of they music they love.

“I have heard that some women-only quartets have been inspired by us. I feel a huge responsibility,” says Bae. “I hope we can show the power of Korean women through our performances.”

She adds: “We would be happy if we could become the ‘Blackpink’ of the classical music scene,” referring to the chart-topping four-woman K-pop group.

“Michel van der Aa: The Book of Water” featuring the Esme Quartet, Feb 24, Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall; “Dazzle – Esme Quartet Recital”, Feb 28, Concert Hall, Hong Kong City Hall; “Voices of Hope and Togetherness – A Choral and Orchestral Gathering”, Mar 4, Concert Hall, Hong Kong Cultural Centre. The quartet will have an artist sharing session at the Korean Cultural Centre in Hong Kong at 6.30pm, Feb 27.

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2023. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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