David Kim Bares His Heart and Soul (Musically and Otherwise)

Concertmaster of Philadelphia Orchestra tells his life story at Mills Hall

Have you ever listened to a great classical musician and wondered what it would be like to play like that? Did you ever take it a step further and ask yourself what price might have been paid to produce those results?

An audience of 200+ had that revealed to them Tuesday night at Mills Hall, via the “Concert and Conversation” presented by David Kim. Kim has been the concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1999—one of the most prestigious positions in the musical world. The “Fabulous Philadelphians,” as they have been called, has been one of the greatest ensembles in the world for over a century, and particularly famous for its string section. It follows that the leader of such a section would necessarily be a truly great player.

We received ample proof of that at once on Tuesday, with Kim launching into the “Sonatensatz” (Sonata movement) of Brahms. Save for a lyrical central section, the stand-alone work is like a wind that shows no sign of running out of steam. This is as unabashedly Romantic as Brahms gets, and Kim and UW doctoral candidate Thomas Kasdorf milked the passion for all it was worth. Kasdorf’s degree path is in collaborative piano, and if Tuesday’s recital had been an exam, he would have aced it.

But after the Brahms came the first part of the story—the between-the-lines narrative that one never glimpses in the standard program bio. You know how they go; here are excerpts from Kim’s: Began violin lessons at the age of three, started lessons with Juilliard’s legendary Dorothy DeLay at eight, won a prize at the 1986 Tchaikovsky Competition, joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1999, teaches at a string of universities, solos with umpteen great orchestras, is married with children in the suburbs.

But as Paul Harvey used to say, “and now…for the rest of the story.” Kim’s  parents came to the U.S. just after 1960 and pursued graduate studies at Southern Illinois University. Kim’s mother was a pianist, his father not musical. Unexpectedly pregnant in 1962, Kim’s mother decides that she will have a son, and that she will groom him to become a world class violinist. Sure enough, at the age of three, Kim receives a one-eighth size violin, and begins practicing an hour a day—with at least a minute more added each day.

At the age of eight he is accepted by DeLay, and begins monthly, and later bi-weekly trips to Juilliard’s Prep Division, all day Saturday affairs. The family lives first in Pittsburgh, then Columbia, South Carolina, and starting at the age of eleven Kim flies alone to New York City to maintain the studies. Around that same time, DeLay gets Kim admitted to the prestigious summer Aspen Festival; free of the constant supervision of his mother, he barely practices. In short, he acts like a boy. DeLay lets him, apparently sensing he desperately needs this release.

During those years in Columbia, Kim asks DeLay for any kind of piece with Southern roots, so she gives him William Kroll’s “Banjo and Fiddle”; Kim shares it now with the audience. Based just on what we’d heard of his story so far, one can’t help but wonder if he finds a new unencumbered joy in the splashy and evocative work that was missing during those admittedly unhappy childhood years.

In the summer of 1977 Kim returns to Aspen, but this time there are no daily check-up calls from his mother. When he returns home he sees a shrunken, frail woman, who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer the day after he left for Aspen. The disease is advanced, and his mother passes away in November. She tells Kim’s father before she passes “David can quit if he wants to.”

Needing a fresh start, Kim’s father moves to Buffalo, New York. David Kim endures a generally unhappy high school time, and plays relatively little, although he continues working with DeLay. In 1980, DeLay decides that David needs some kind of goal, and tells him about the vaunted Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. A kind of musical Olympics, it occurs every four years—but she proposes not that Kim compete in 1982, but in 1986. The goal: to make the final cut of twelve (the competition is open to all musicians, not just violinists), and win one of the top eight prizes. Kim agrees, and begins to experience a renewed passion for playing.

Flash forward six years; Kim does win a prize and returns home to… “I was surprised to learn that I wasn’t an ‘A-list’ soloist. I was more a B-minus at best.” Yes, there were appearances in Paris (Texas), and when he told some friends he had just gotten back from a tour, he neglected to mention that the “tour” consisted entirely of one recital at a church in Elkhart, Indiana.

Kim decides to visit a favorite uncle who is an avid golfer, and he first sets eyes on Jane, a young Korean golfer on the cusp of turning pro. She’s been golfing since she was five—and has a decided love/hate relationship with it all. Needless to say it is love at first sight for David, and although it takes him some time, they are wed in 1989.

Kim is continuing to struggle with his solo career; Jane asks if he would consider playing in an orchestra. Kim bristles at the suggestion (John DeMain has shared with me that when he was a Juilliard student it was common to hear from everybody that their career was as a soloist or bust). But by 1995 he decides to take some orchestral auditions…and fails several times to land anything. Finally in 1999 the huge break of getting into the Philadelphia Orchestra—and becoming the concertmaster no less—heralds the still-unfolding next phase of his life. His celebrated position in Philadelphia would be enough, but now he continues to make solo appearances with many of the great orchestras in the world, and teaches at a number of universities. And so the first half closed with an ethereal reading of a work that, if any could, restore in the audience a true sense of hope, peace and quiet joy: the “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thais. Once again, kudos to pianist Kasdorf for all of his fine playing; we look forward to the impending release of flutist Stephanie Jutt’s second volume of Latin masterpieces, with Kasdorf at the keyboard.

The second half of the evening was all music, no talk—save for Kim’s brief introduction of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Now joined by 37 UW students on strings, and Satoko Hayami on harpsichord, Kim gave a lively and nuanced reading of all four concertos. It was fun to hear them in a different order, beginning with Autumn and ending with Summer. Better still was the collective effort of young players who had been clearly inspired by their celebrated leader (Kim had also led some master classes on Monday and Tuesday).

One might have surmised that he was simply being the gracious guest by announcing that we were about to enjoy a world-class performance, but if there was any hyperbole in the pronouncement, it was minimal. The UW players exhibited tremendous alertness and shading of phrasing. Principal cellist James Waldo had numerous passages of delicate interplay with Kim, and particularly in the “Spring” concerto, first-chair first and second violinists Kaleigh Acord and Thalia Coombs respectively, also flourished in some brief spotlight moments.

Kim had also thanked UW Mead School of Music violin professor Soh-Hyun Park Altino for extending the invitation. Yours truly (and probably everyone else in attendance) would like to thank her as well. It was, as hoped, one of the most unique and stimulating music events I have run across in a long time; it is one thing to be renewed by hearing great music played live with excellence, but to peer behind the personal curtain of the performer makes it all the more memorable.

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3 thoughts on “David Kim Bares His Heart and Soul (Musically and Otherwise)

  1. What a beautiful night at Mills Hall, I’m frustrated that I had to miss it – in fact at least two such events there this week, that were on my schedule until unforeseen health issues (not mine, luckily) intervened. It’s hard to keep up with all the great musical events happening this year at the Mead Witter School of Music. Thanks so much Greg for recording here, so vividly, the spoken part of this concert!

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    1. Dan, thanks so much for those kind words. Obviously I felt it was important to tell his story–perhaps even more than comment on his playing (which hardly needs my critical approval!). I appreciate your reading my blog–even when you can’t get to the event! Blessings.

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