In pop, jazz, or classical, local violinist Sonia Lee scales the heights
Outside of Congress, very few people get to string along the White House. Yet after long and deep deliberation, Juilliard-trained violinist and Troy resident Sonia Lee opted to decline an invitation to join “Pershing’s Own,” the prestigious U.S. Army Strings ensemble — becoming one of President Barack Obama’s personal fiddlers — despite breezing through her winning audition.
The major factor in her decision was that the appointment would require relocating to suburban Virginia. And Lee — are you sitting down? — couldn’t bear the thought of leaving suburban Detroit.
“When I moved here, I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was,” says Lee, who is Korean born and Buffalo, N.Y., reared. “The resources for children and families. There’s some incredible people here in metro Detroit, and I just think it’s time the nation realizes how wonderful it is here. The Detroit Zoo, I really love it. I love the Detroit Tigers; Comerica Park is a real beauty. The Red Wings have done so well, and the Pistons. We sometimes can take it for granted, but I’m thankful every day that I live here.”
Lee, 38, has more than enough alternate musical pursuits to keep her fulfilled, and she should know about the relative wonders of outdoor stadiums. Since 1998, her talent, beauty, and performing brio have made her an in-demand instrumentalist for the concert tours of numerous A-list entertainers, including Diana Ross, Rod Stewart, Don Henley, and Billy Joel. (At press time, she was being wooed by another band touring this summer, but couldn’t reveal the artist until contracts were finalized.)
Her transition from classical music didn’t come quickly. She joined the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at 21 immediately upon graduating from Juilliard; two years later, she became the youngest principal violinist in the orchestra’s history. “I was hired by Günther Herbig, former music director of the Detroit Symphony, but he left a year later and was replaced by Jukka-Pekka Saraste,” Lee says. “To my delight, [Saraste] was very artistically driven, and didn’t mind if one didn’t have a lot of seniority. He was really trying to get young blood into the orchestra.
“On the day of my [first-chair] audition, I had a headband in my hair and it fell over my eyes while I was playing,” she recalls, laughing. “The committee expected me to stop so I could see the music, but I had memorized the audition and I didn’t want to lose momentum. I think that impressed them. After I won the audition, everyone called me Geordi, from Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
When the orchestra was recruited to perform the Canadian leg of The Three Tenors’ world tour, Lee began to see a new musical light. In 1998, she released Buzz, an independent solo CD, which she describes as “eclectic, popular classical crossover” songs.
“The Three Tenors experience generated a little interest, I guess, from a lot of different artists and their managers who wanted a violinist who could cross over into the pop realm,” she says. “I would send them my CD, and they’d say, ‘OK, you’re hired.’ ”
Lee has since completed two more CDs, the all-jazz Sweet and her newest work, Chasing Dreams, to be released this month. She summoned the pluck to compete on the first season of NBC’s America’s Got Talent, making it to the semifinals playing a shocking-pink Viper violin. (“My parents are very conservative ... they didn’t talk to me for months,” she says.) In March, she won the first Michigan Film Award for Best Original Score for the Sam Kadi documentary Raised Alone. Yet she says she’d rather stay home and make music with her Detroit-raised husband, Michael, a small-business entrepreneur, and her children, William, 9, and Trinity, 7.
Both offspring play multiple instruments. “I never, ever force my kids to practice,” Lee says. “I just say when you feel inspired to work on your violin, cello, or guitar, go ahead. The only thing I ask is simply to try their best.”