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Her playing caught their ears; now she is one of them

22-year-old violinist set for BSO debut

When Julianne Lee talks about her new job at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, she sounds more like a teenager describing a lunchroom clique than one of the most gifted young violinists in the country.

``Sometimes I think, `What if they don't like me?' " Lee said this week, on the eve of her first performance with the BSO. ``When I say these things to my friends, they say, `If they didn't like you, they wouldn't have chosen you.' "

Last year at this time, Lee was just another first- year graduate student at New England Conservatory. But Lee's violin teacher, impressed by her playing, suggested that she apply for an open slot in the BSO. In March, Lee beat out more than 200 players to score a seat in the orchestra. Tonight, the 22-year-old -- the youngest in the 94-member BSO -- plays her first concert with the orchestra.

To people who know Lee, the appointment comes as no shock. Music runs in the family. Her father, Jaekyu , is a cellist with the Korean Broadcasting System Symphony Orchestra. Her older sister, Janet, plays cello in Paris. Born in Korea, Lee moved several times as a child, living in New Jersey, Canada, and Paris at different points. At 16, she entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Last year, she came to Boston to earn her master's degree at the New England Conservatory.

That's where she caught the ear of former BSO violinist Marylou Speaker Churchill . As part of Churchill's orchestra excerpts course, Lee performed a mock audition at Symphony Hall. ``I heard all the things that an audition committee is looking for," remembers Churchill. ``Beautiful rhythm. Beautiful intonation. Musical phrasing. Exquisite timing. Everything was in place." As Lee walked off the stage, Churchill pulled her aside. The teacher offered a suggestion she had never given to another student. Send your resume in to the BSO, Churchill said. They're auditioning violinists. Lee had never considered trying out.

``It seemed like such a big thing," she said. ``I wasn't afraid, but let's just say I didn't have any expectation." Over two days in March, Lee competed at Symphony Hall for a position. The BSO had whittled the list of 225 resumes to 23 violinists. From behind a canvas screen -- the BSO audition process, until the final round, is blind -- the players competed.

Late on March 21, BSO Assistant Personnel Manager Bruce Creditor delivered the good news to Lee and Jason Horowitz, 34. They had been selected.

Lee would not be the youngest player in BSO history. That distinction goes to Ronald Feldman , a 19-year-old Boston University freshman in 1967 when he scored a gig in the cello section. Back then, before the boom in music school enrollment, there was less competition. He remembers about 20 people applying in 1967. In 2002, when the BSO sought a replacement for the retiring Feldman, about 200 players applied. Feldman has advice for Lee, who will be vying for tenure -- new players are on ``probation" until given permanent status -- in a section of the orchestra traditionally difficult to score points with. Just last year, the BSO denied tenure to assistant concertmaster Juliette Kang, who promptly went on to win a post with the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra as associate concertmaster.

``Play your music, mind your business, be friendly, but wait until you're actually a member before you let loose," said Feldman, now director of instrumental activities at Williams College. ``Everybody appears to be your friend and they're very welcoming but the reality is you're really not a member of the fraternity or the sorority until you actually pass probation." There is no fruit basket, no formal welcome wagon at the BSO, and until this week, Lee had met fewer than a handful of her new colleagues. Over the summer, she did talk frequently with violist Marvin Moon, 25, who had attended the Curtis Institute with her.

Moon told her to make sure she arrives on time, meaning a half hour before rehearsals. He also jokingly told Lee to save her money; as a new player, she'll earn the BSO's standard starting salary, $118,040.

``The one main thing I told her is it's not school anymore," said Moon. ``No one's going to tell you what to do, or how to do it."

Lee has made her priorities clear. She decided not to enter the prestigious Walter W. Naumburg Competition in New York this month. That would have meant missing a number of BSO concerts.

On Wednesday this week, violin case slung across her back, she showed up for her first rehearsal. She felt lost. This had nothing to do with music. Lee had practiced, and prepared for an afternoon of Dvorak. Her problem was finding a spot to warm up.

A freelance viola player took pity, walking Lee through a labyrinth of hallways to a windowless practice room. A solid 15 minutes before most BSO players would arrive, Lee took out her violin. Before starting on her scales, she confessed to being nervous.

The butterflies quickly scattered. On stage Wednesday, before leading the orchestra, conductor James Levine asked new players to stand and be introduced. With each new name, the orchestra members applauded. By the first break, Lee said she felt comfortable.

``I still can't believe it," she said. ``I think I won't believe it until I'm sitting there. It seems like a miracle."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a story in Friday's Weekend section misnamed the youngest player in the history of the BSO. The youngest member was trumpet player Roger Voisin, who was 17 when he joined the orchestra in 1935.)

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