Arts & Culture

Changing lives with music and science

4 min read

A simple desire for attention at the age of 6 set Bong-Ihn Koh on a lifelong path.

“My older sister was studying the violin,” Koh recalled. “Of course she was getting a lot of attention from my mother, and I got jealous.”

When his mother, who would buy violin recordings for his sister, brought home a cello piece by mistake, the young Koh got his hands on it and was hooked.

“When I listened to it, I knew this was the instrument I wanted to play,” he said, remembering his first encounter with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 1. “I just fell in love with it.”

For a year he pressed his parents for cello lessons. Reluctantly, they gave in. Five years later, he won the Third International Tchaikovsky Competition for Young Musicians in St. Petersburg, Russia.

“When I made it to the final round and eventually won it, they knew I had basically received an international affirmation of my potential and my talent,” he laughed.

Today, the Yo-Yo Ma comparison is virtually unavoidable.

The friendly, easy-going nature and genuine, ever-present smile, the mastery with the cello, and the Asian ancestry are all things they share. Not to mention the Harvard connection.

Over the years, Koh has come to look to Ma as a friend and mentor. They first met when Koh was 16 after a concert by Ma in Germany, where Koh was studying. He and his classmates managed to get backstage for an introduction, and the next thing they knew they were playing Ma’s Montagnana cello from the 1700s.

“He actually just gave it to us and said, ‘Would you like to try out my cello?’ We were perfect strangers, but as a person he’s like that. He loves people, he enjoys their company so, so much.”

Koh, who as a sophomore played with Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, aspires to be like the famous Harvard graduate who unites people through music. He aims to use music as a tool for peace and hopes one day to play at the celebration of the reunification of North and South Korea. In 2006, Koh, a South Korean native, was scheduled to play in Pyongyang, North Korea, at the Isang Yun World Peace Concert featuring musicians from both countries, but North Korea’s nuclear tests just days before the event put an end to his plans.

Currently, he is a member of the Harvard Undergraduates for Human Rights in North Korea, a group that helps educate the Harvard community about human rights abuses in the country.

“Music can communicate with people in a sense that nothing else can,” Koh said. “Barriers that we have between us and North Korea can be broken through music.

The son of a pianist and a scientist, Koh’s other passion, when he’s not busy traveling and performing in roughly 40 to 50 concerts a year, is trying to improve people’s lives through completely different means. A biochemical sciences concentrator, for the past two years he has worked at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute examining stem cells that create the blood system, research he hopes may one day help patients with leukemia.

Koh’s philosophy about his scientific work is a simple one.

“People need to be healthy to live,” he said, “and stem cell research has huge potential to make that happen.”

While at Harvard, Koh has been enrolled in a dual program with the College and the New England Conservatory, where he will earn a master’s degree after completing the final year of the program in 2009. During his last year at the conservatory, he will continue to live at Cabot House, and plans to continue his work as an artist on campus, organizing concerts, coaching chamber music groups, and giving cello lessons.

In his free time, he will work at the Stem Cell Institute. After that he plans to attend either graduate or medical school, whichever path will best allow him to incorporate his two passions. One without the other, Koh said, just won’t work.

“It’s the thought of being depressed or deprived of a certain sort of happiness if I don’t do one of the two,” he explained. “A lot of people call me crazy because each profession requires a huge amount of time and effort, but I think the most important thing is you have to be happy, and you can’t become the best in your profession unless you’re happy and content with your life.”

Koh compared his relationship with his instrument to that of a best friend.

“Whenever I have something that I want to say but can’t say to anybody, I come to the instrument and play,” he said. “It’s a part of me, without it I would basically almost be voiceless.”