Sydney Lee held her dad’s hand tightly as they took their seats amid the warm glow of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, beneath its twinkling chandeliers and high, vaulted ceiling, waiting for her mother, Soo Lee, to take the stage.
“Seeing her start the program with the beautiful opening cello solo of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor left me in awe,” says Lee ’22 MMus, who was 6 years old at the time. “Just watching my own mom rock it on stage — that really made me love cello.”
That same year, Lee’s mother taught her to play the instrument, and Lee’s talent quickly blossomed. At age 8 she was accepted into The Juilliard School’s pre-college program, and at 13 she made her orchestral debut with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. After earning her bachelor’s degree from the Curtis Institute of Music, she came to Northwestern to study with Bienen School of Music professor and renowned cellist Hans Jørgen Jensen.
Since then, Lee’s accomplishments have multiplied, as has her affinity for classical music.
Classical music taps into something “at our deepest core,” Lee says. “You feel emotions at a level that you can’t really feel without classical music. … And when you experience something that great, you naturally want to share it.”
Lee has strived to do just that, performing at top venues across Europe and the United States and drawing international recognition. In August 2022, she was named the inaugural recipient of the $50,000 Gurrena Fellowship from the Meadowmount School of Music, an honor she says has “felt like a kick-start” to her career.
After winning the 2022 Washington International Competition for Strings, she received an Antonio Casini cello on loan from Christophe Landon Rare Violins. “I’ve been enjoying getting to know the instrument,” she says. “I feel like I’m starting a new relationship. I’m getting to know how to get along with it, how to get the most projection out of it, how to get the sweetness, the boldness, all the personalities that this cello is capable of showcasing.”
When she’s not playing cello, Lee enjoys video blogging about her travels and day-to-day life. “I like that people get to know me as a cellist, but I also would like for them to see me as a person in real life,” Lee says. “I want them to see different sides of me.”
In addition to her solo work, Lee plays in the Galvin Cello Quartet with other Bienen graduate students Sihao He ’18 MMus, Haddon Kay ’22 and Luiz Fernando Venturelli ’21. The quartet is represented by the Concert Artists Guild, based in New York. Lee also serves on the board of the Back to BACH Project, a music and arts education program that she co-founded with her brother (a fellow cellist) in 2014. “We just love getting a new generation excited about music,” she says.
Now she’s continuing her Bienen education to earn her doctorate in music — even amid a packed performance schedule.
“Whenever I perform, my main objective is for people to really feel everything that’s inside my heart,” Lee says. “To have that opportunity alone — I just feel so grateful.”
Diana Babineau is a writer and editor in the Office of Global Marketing and Communications.