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Laurie Niles Interview with Clara-Jumi Kang, 2010 Indianapolis Gold Medal Laureate

September 29, 2010 at 1:31 AM

You may have noticed, if you were watching, that gold medal laureate Clara-Jumi Kang appeared to be tears Friday night after her performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the 2010 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis Finals.

Actually, the real tears came the day before.

"I cried for 40 minutes the day before I played the Beethoven," she said. For the competition, Clara-Jumi played on a 1774 Guadagnini from Turin, on loan from the Kumho Foundation in Korea. The fiddle was not always an easy partner, especially for the Beethoven Violin Concerto. (Listen to her Final round here.)

The Guad has a very bright sound, and "sometimes it has a personality I can't control." By contrast, her normal violin has a darker sound. "I was used to that phrasing" that comes out of a darker violin, and "somehow nothing seemed to work."

Clara-Jumi, 23, has perfect pitch, and she was accustomed to a 443-hertz "A" in Korea, or a 444 in Europe. The Indianapolis Symphony used a 440 "A" – much lower. "I was used to the higher sound," she said. Putting all those things together, everything felt out of her control.

But then she came to a profound realization: "I found myself thinking that Beethoven is much too great for me to control it," Clara-Jumi said. "It's from above this earth, and I should just play it, just worship it as something from above. That is what I focused on all evening."

"I was so into the music," she said of her performance of the Beethoven at the Finals. "I am blessed to have played the Beethoven with orchestra eight times – nobody wants to play the Beethoven with you when you are 23.

"(On Friday) I was playing it like I was worshipping it – that's why, after the performance, I had tears running," she said. They came from her deep emotion for the Beethoven and from her sadness at the piece coming to an end, the competition coming to an end. "It wasn't because I was upset or because I didn't like my playing.

Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.

"I love Beethoven too much," Clara-Jumi said. "If this concerto didn't exist, maybe I wouldn't love the violin as much."

Clara-Jumi started playing the violin when she was three years old. Her parents – both opera singers – had planned for her to play the piano. "I said, 'No," I wanted something with a longer sound."

The Beethoven was always her favorite violin concerto, and she had more CDs of it, with more violinists, than she can count. She used to fall asleep listening to the Beethoven. "The timpani would make my heart beat," she said. "I guess it just grew into me."

"With Beethoven, every time you play it, it's so different – the feeling you have, the phrasing," Clara-Jumi said. "I get surprised with what feeling I come to."

She said she has eight or nine scores of the Beethoven and tries to use a different score each time she studies the piece, without writing in many fingerings or bowings.

"I try not to touch Beethoven's dynamics – Beethoven has a strong dynamic," she said.

Performing Beethoven, "sometimes you feel like you are getting all your weaknesses pulled out of you in public," Clara-Jumi said, "but sometimes it touches people's hearts."

I spoke to Clara-Jumi Kang on Sunday, right after she rehearsed Waxman's Carmen Fantasy at the Scottish Rite Cathedral in downtown Indianapolis for her final appearance at the IVCI awards ceremony. It would be her first performance as the competition's gold medal recipient.

Clara-Jumi was admitted at age four to the Mannheim Musikhochschule and at age seven to The Juilliard School. Her teachers have included Zakhar Bron, Dorothy DeLay and Nam Yun Kim.

The IVCI was by no means Clara-Jumi's first international competition – she won first prize in the 2010 Sendai International Violin Competition, second prize at the 2009 Hannover International Violin Competition; and first prize at the 2009 Seoul International Violin Competition. I wondered if the Indianapolis competition was different in any way from these other competitions.

"It has an incredible host family system," she said of the Indianapolis. She had worried about whether or not she would be able to perform her best, under the circumstances of living with a host family, but she found that it worked very well. Her host family gave her an attic bedroom with its own bathroom, and "I could be upstairs alone for two hours and not feel bad about it," she said. "They made me feel like, 'You play a concert, and then rest.'" They also showed her around town and fed her well, she said.

She also felt happy with the audiences in Indianapolis. "The feeling I had onstage was that the audience seemed happy to hear the music. I can feel it when I play, if someone is into me, listening to me," Clara-Jumi said. "Something about America is attractive; the audiences don't hold back their feelings." For example, they don't hesitate to give a standing ovation. "Sometimes you play in other countries and they tend to show feelings in a different way,"

She said that she used to have a bad attitude toward audiences when it was clear that people were not listening. Over time, she came around to a different feeling about it. "Now I want to play for everyone. My love for music was bigger than other people's negative thoughts in the audience."

"I think it helps if you are on stage more often," Clara-Jumi said of finding the right mentality for approaching performance. "Having a stage presence is important, even in competitions."

For her, the competition went in four stages, coinciding with the four rounds.

"The first round really felt like a competition," she said. That was the round in which competitors had to play movements from Bach unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas; two Paganini Caprices; a Mozart violin-piano sonata and an encore piece. She played the Adagio and Fuga from Bach Sonata in G; Paganini Caprices 7 and 11; Sonata in G, K. 301 by Mozart; and Beau Soir, arranged by Heifetz. (Listen to her preliminary round here.)

The second round felt completely different, playing a Beethoven violin-piano sonata; a non-Beethoven violin-piano sonata and a showpiece. She played Beethoven Sonata No. 3 in E flat, Op. 12; the Ravel Violin Sonata; Joan Tower's "String Force"; and Waxman's "Carmen Fantasy."

"It should have felt like a competition, but the Ravel and the Beethoven made me enjoy playing," she said. (Listen to her second round here.)

The Classical Finals were made even more interesting for her by the selection of a new Mozart – or at least one that had been in storage for a while.

"I had played Mozart No. 4 for eight years and recently won the Sendai Competition playing that," Clara-Jumi said. "I changed in July to Mozart No. 5 – I have not played it since I was eight years old." (Listen to her Classical Finals round here.)

"I wanted a fresh start for Mozart," Clara-Jumi said. "I felt like I was playing Mozart Four out of habit. And I like the Turkish (section in the last movement of the fifth concerto) very much," though that last movement proved hard to memorize, she said, the way it keeps repeating with different decorations.

"I was very nervous for this competition. I ate this many blueberries," she laughed, indicating a large bowl with her hands. "I think a nervous feeling is always a good thing, as long as it doesn't interfere with your playing.

When she was about to go on stage for one of the final concerts, conductor Samuel Wong asked, "How do you feel?"

"Nervous!" she said.

"That's good!" he said.

"And somehow his comment really helped," Clara-Jumi said. She was grateful for his support and for that of the the orchestra. "Samuel Wong made me feel like I didn't have to give him too many cues," she said. "I could close my eyes and just play."

Clara-Jumi tends to think in terms of a singing line – her parents are opera singers, and her father sings things such as Wagner.

"When I was in my mom's stomach, she was singing at La Scala," Clara-Jumi said. Her mother stopped singing publicly when Clara-Jumi was born, but her father has continued. Though she looks up to violinists such as Anne-Sophie Mutter, David Oistrakh, Jascha Heifetz and Ivry Gitlis, her father counts high among the people she admires.

"The reason my father is one of my idols as a musician is not just because he is my father," she said. "My father has always been true and honest to music." He has tried to ignore the politics of music.

"He said, 'Try to win with your music, never try to concentrate on how you effect people. Think of your language as a musician and be true to yourself as a musician.' I think I'm about to follow his path," she said.

She said she would like to bring music to places where people may have never heard a violin, in poorer countries.

"I would like to heal people with music," she said. "There are so few thing that can heal people's hearts – music is one of them."

(Here is the page from which all performances from all contestants, all rounds, can be accessed for listening.)


From Emily Liz
Posted on September 29, 2010 at 1:37 AM

What a great interview. I'm so relieved that her tears came from such a pure and honest place and even better weren't based on fear or discouragement! The Beethoven was incredibly touching. I think I'll go listen to it again... Congratulations.

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on September 29, 2010 at 8:47 AM

Great interview - I love her comments about the Beethoven and also it is interesting to read about the possible downside of borrowing a fine violin for a competition.  

As someone who absolutely LOVES blueberries, I must give them a try as a snack before a concert - see if they have as good an effect as bananas!  Obviously worked for our winner!

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on September 29, 2010 at 12:09 PM

Thanks!  Really a nice interview with a super artist musician!  Very interesting!


From Adam korczynski
Posted on September 29, 2010 at 12:31 PM

Great interview. To read how such good a musician feels about music is very interesting.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 29, 2010 at 4:09 PM

Wow, Laurie, thank you! I was extremely moved by Ms Kang's performances and your interview report is like a great desert to round up a fantastic meal that will stay in my memory for a long, long time.

From John Cadd
Posted on September 30, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Dessert Yixi.  The desert is down in Nevada.  I hope that violin didn`t get wet.

From Smiley Hsu
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 2:32 AM

Does anyone know what kind of pad she is using on the bottom of her violin?  You get a pretty good look at it in the Beethoven around 5:30.  Looks like a thin piece of chamois, but looks as if it is stuck to the instrument.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on October 1, 2010 at 1:06 PM

 Oh, loved reading this, and I can't BELIEVE the competition has come and gone and I wasn't able to keep up with any of it. Thank goodness for the website and links! 

Thanks, Laurie. Wonderful interview. And a big CONGRATULATIONS to Clara-Jumi and all the laureates.

From Chin Kim
Posted on October 4, 2010 at 5:11 AM

Terrific interview. Putting music before her, and to play by the inspiration of the music rather than her own ego. For her to realize it at her age is remarkable. If she can keep that attitude, she will go far!

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