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Siwoo Kim, when the music wins

Jacqueline Vanasse

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Published: November 28, 2013 at 6:25 PM [UTC]

Siwoo Kim was born in South Korea, started the violin when he was two and a half, came to the States when he was five and has been attending Juilliard for the past few years. But it’s about what the young man has in common with the other hundreds of talents walking the streets of New York. Siwoo Kim is one of the most thoughtful people I have been given to meet, one of the most soulful musicians I have been given to hear. In the last days, I heard the young violinist play Bach’s E major Concerto with the New York Classical Players in a concert featuring all four Bach Concertos with violin. The ensemble’s mission is to bring great quality music to everyone for free and is comprised of some of the best young players in the city. “I have never played the E Major concerto before so I learned for the occasion and I have been completely obsessed with that second movement right now”. Siwoo’s Bach was extremely beautiful, transfiguring.

Siwoo KimThe young violinist says that within the classical music genre his preference of repertoire gravitates towards baroque and classical. But he gladly plays romantic music and has been playing a lot of contemporary works too. Last September for example he gave the premiere of a concerto written by Juilliard composition faculty’s Samuel Adler. “I think even when I play romantic music a lot of my thought process is geared toward classical baroque. It’s something about structure. What I value about classical-baroque is the way they did so much with what they had back then, they didn’t have to put flourishes of scales and arpeggios or big orchestration. It’s absolutely amazing what expression they could bring out! You just play a cadence and it feels so satisfying.” Siwoo had the honor of playing Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 5 with the Juilliard orchestra at Carnegie Hall in 2011, after winning the competition. Pensive, he remembers: “even just that one note in the second movement of the Concerto when you get to trill while the orchestra is playing this ostinato…it’s magical! I absolutely fell in love with that language. I love music that employs a lot of colors. Searching for colors is one of the best things about playing the violin.”

However, it’s not something the young violinist has always been aware of. Siwoo Kim grew-up mostly in Ohio but got his musical training at the Musical Institute of Chicago where he studied with Almita Vamos for 9 years. With Almita Vamos’ lessons, his mother’s commitment and his practicing, he developed a natural fluidity with the instrument and would do whatever he felt like instinctively. “As a child I was very the showman type and by the time I was 17-18 I thought I was pretty good”, he laughs. Then he came to Juilliard and started taking lessons with Robert Mann and Donald Weilerstein They told him that he had so much to learn, that he had no idea what he was doing with music. “Mann used to say that I was just perfuming music, like a girl with make-up to cover everything but no personality. I had the facility to play loud and fast but I don’t think that was actually me. Weilerstein – who really helped to find my voice – noticed that when I was playing slow movement I was in a complete different world.” In fact, the most special thing about Siwoo’s playing is how inward he can be and how he can really draw in the audience rather than throwing music at them. “Before I would just react to my instinct…I would just play”, recognized Siwoo, “but once you are able to get a grasp on music because you learned the grammar, the language, the vocabulary of it then you feel a lot more confident about it.” Honesty of expression is something the young man values a lot. “I teach some students and I can tell when they listen to a recording and they are trying to bring out an expression but they don’t actually feel it that way. I told my students to search and to see what that music really means to them. I do a lot of soul searching when I teach my students until I have them play the way they really feel it inside and it makes such a big difference.” If you are not prepared you are just playing notes. You have to figure out why the composer would write a fourth here and why he would write a fifth there, there is a reason and you have to really feel that viscerally. We are not talking about legato or connecting the sound but of that certain emotional core which leads from one note to another. You have to look further, to look beyond facility. “Good, you are a good violinist but you are not quite a great musician yet. I think there is a difference between being a really great violinist and being a great musician.”

There was a very interesting brief period when Siwoo ended up studying with the pianist Robert McDonald. When Mr. Mann decided to exclusively teach at Manhattan School of Music, Ronald Copes took his places. But because Mr. Copes already had a full studio, the young man ended up without a teacher and Juilliard let him study with anyone he wanted, even if he was not a violin teacher. “McDonald would sit at the piano accompanying me on sonatas and would talk about the interplay between violin and the piano.” McDonald was Midori’s duo partner and Siwoo says that he would listen to their recordings and would understand where they come from. “It was really interesting to listen to their recordings, because – being taught by McDonald – I could hear what they talked about in rehearsal. When I was listening to the product of it and could figure out what they tried to do with that music. It made it so cerebrally stimulating and moving.”

Siwoo says that he is very grateful to Almita Vamos, who really fortifies foundation, for helping him get around the instrument so that when he came to Juilliard that was something he was able to maintain on his own. As for his later teachers, all they focused on was how to look at the score, react to harmony, be able to listen, see what is going on, how to really communicate with the audience, how to improve the sound. Moreover, the teachers the young man had – as teaching geniuses – never tried to tell him how to play the instrument, but teach him how to feel better and confident while playing: they make him better at being himself. Therefore, since he is in New York, everything has been about creativity. These days, Siwoo is trying to find the right balance in his playing. “I realize that I still need my more virtuosic and brilliant side to go out there on the stage. I realize I need a mix of everything and if that is so special of being inward I can use it for very special moments and shining in those, and the rest of the time be a little more generous with my expression.”

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