Interview with Kyu-Young Kim
I’ve been very fortunate to work with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra as a guest musician this past season, and along the way I got to know their Artistic Director and Principal Violinist, Kyu-Young Kim (he goes by Kyu). Aside from my admiration for his leadership and his unwavering artistic vision that has shaped the orchestra, I just can’t stress enough how kind and thoughtful he is! He’s really one of the nicest people I know. I don’t really know when he sleeps or if he ever has time for it, because the amount of work required to fulfill the two roles in the organization, as well as being a father of two, must be completely insane. I’m extremely thankful for his time and the thought he put into this interview— definitely worth a read so please keep on reading!
Mari: What was the first piece by Britten you’d ever heard?
Kyu: It was The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, which is a piece that I think a lot of people come across early in life. It is a fun piece and a great way to learn about the instruments in the orchestra. I also played his Simple Symphony in my public high school orchestra. I had this great teacher who loved to explore interesting repertoire even though none of the kids could really play— we did the pizzicato movement of the symphony way under tempo.
That was probably my first encounter with Britten but I had no idea of the depth of his music until much later, even after I graduated from school. I remember hearing his 2nd String Quartet as a student at Taos and thought that it was a really cool piece, especially the second movement, the scherzo. It’s very virtuosic.
M: How would you describe his music?
K: There are two things. The first could be almost a negative term: clever. It was something that earlier on pushed me away from his music, because I felt that it was not so sincere in some ways—like showing off a little. But now I completely disagree with it because the other part of it is incredibly sensual, emotional, and psychologically very astute. It’s almost holding it against him that he was so brilliantly clever and precocious by nature—but it all serves the music at a deeper level. So you see a piece like The Turn of the Screw and the way it’s put together with the symmetry and numerology is so beautiful—but it all serves the purpose of heightening the psychological drama of that piece and the things he was trying to question through his music.
I love his music now. I don’t think I appreciated it. In the last 10 years or so I really have come to love his music and he has become one of my favorite composers.
M: Do you think Britten has entered the canon of the classical music?
K: Probably not so much in America— but it’s starting to. I think there used to be more criticism of composers like Britten and Shostakovich of them not being on the same level, but that has gone away. I think there is a real appreciation for the quality of the music. It’s not music that’s just appreciated at one level, the surface. So I think in that sense it’s not really “contemporary music” any more.
M: Our last concert was centred around the question: “What does it mean to be an artist in our modern age?” What do you think are some of the challenges artists face today?
K: Today, there is so much innovation that you can explore—different ways of presenting, collaborating across disciplines. It feels like the world has opened up. The question is: How do you balance that with the tradition that we have? You can have innovative programs and concerts that can be transformational but we also could have a Winterreise that is even more transformational with just the pianist and the singer on stage perform that work. It’s not that you have to always do something different to have a transformational concert. That is part of the dilemma for younger musicians coming up.
They’re seeing it all too, everything is accessible on the web, all these streaming videos. They should consume it all but it can sometimes be confusing too. I was talking with someone the other day about how it is for people growing up to learn Bach now. There are so many different ways of playing it now—historic performance, different strings, and I think it can be really confusing. Most of them are still using an edition that has Galamian fingering. The challenge is to know how you want to play—I rarely come across someone in college who really learned to deal with that confusion of how to play Bach.
M: If you could ask Britten one question, what would it be?
K: What was it that he wished he had written that he didn’t write?
Interviewed on January 17, 2018