From child prodigy to virtuoso, no shortcuts
Julius-Jeongwon Kim wants clean slate with ‘fifth’ Rachmaninov piano concerto
By Kwaak Je-yup
By Kwaak Je-yup
In this age of teenage pop idols, 20-something Silicon Valley millionaires and sports stars who retire before 30, early success and wealth tend to receive all the attention and respect.
But in the world of classical music, critical acclaim and recognition remain elusive even for those musicians with exceptional talent. Even after the precocious few make splash debuts in the gilded halls of Europe and America, the limelight shifts fast to their successors, and career musicians often toil for decades without much public interest.
All this is a familiar tale to Julius-Jeongwon Kim, a former child prodigy who turns 37 this year and is still considered “a young pianist” by this curious world’s standards. And having flirted with “unserious” crossover music in the past, he has faced even more pundits’ ridicule and accusations of selling out.
Now under new management and ink still fresh on the record deal with Deutsche Grammophon (DG), Kim seems determined to make a bold statement.
In March, he marked his DG debut with Rachmaninov’s so-called “fifth piano concerto,” Alexander Warenberg’s transcription of the Russian composer’s second symphony that caused a controversy and many shudders in the world’s classical music enthusiasts.
It is the first widely available commercial recording from a major label for the piece. The new work does sound like the legendary pianist at most times, many of the styles — even in the cadenza — are reminiscent of the other, “real,” Rachmaninov piano concertos.
Shostakovich’s lighter second concerto balances out the meaty Rachmaninov to complete the disc.
“Honestly I was ambivalent at first because the symphony was already a well-known masterpiece,” said Kim in an interview, referring to two years ago when he was introduced to the unknown work, whose score is still unavailable commercially, “and I thought it could ruin the original. I was skeptical about how Rachmaninov’s pianism could be re-created, but while spending a week with the score, I found myself surprised by it each day. I realized it was not a onetime thing but a work of historical importance in front of me.”
And for his personal record, too, it appears. Kim’s vibrant interpretation of the fifth concerto is a clear sign that his detractors have been wrong. His fluidity and dexterity deserve lengthy applause; concert halls worldwide should be fighting to book him to give this fascinating work greater public exposure instead of going back to the same old canon every year.
His playing, of course, has room for improvement. One could ask for more conviction; his fiery sound may not match every palate.
The performance is a winner, however, thanks to his enviable command and also the solid partnership with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michael Francis. Judgments aside, it shows he is on the right track to a flourishing career without an adjective that refers to age or experience.
There has always been only one path for Kim: “It was not a choice,” he said. The then adolescent pianist left Korea during middle school to study at the venerable Musikhochschule in Vienna and never looked back. Additional studies in Paris and then back in the Austrian capital occupied him for several years and culminated with awards at international competitions, most notably the 1997 Boesendorfer Klavierwettbewerb in Germany.
Comparing it to his marriage, which happened after a 10-year romance — “the only one in my life” — he says he never once considered another career. Listening to his stories, it sounds as if every major step in his life was predestined somehow.
“Maybe I wasn’t brave or clever enough to look at something else,” he said, though it was hard to tell whether he was joking or not.
He would not be faulted for thinking so, as the professional trek back to Korea has never been too rosy, despite his precocious stardom riding on the full trophy case. Nowadays international competitions for performing arts rarely happen without Korean contestants (and winners), but during Kim’s time, it was still rare.
But the most publicized part of his discography and concert schedule was his “Friends” series, which saw collaborations with the likes of new classical pianist Yiruma and pop ballad singer Kim Dong-ryul. While these artists are admired in their respective worlds, (often elderly) diehard classical music fans were quick to seize on the occasion to criticize the “young pianist” for selling out. A mere mention of his name often conjures up some disdain from those supposed connoisseurs in the upper echelons of society.
Meanwhile, he moves along, disregarding the brouhaha.
“I am working so that I can find my own color. I admit I used to be mindful of my (former) management’s wishes. I don’t want the quality (of playing) to suffer. I don’t want to hide behind my age. The hand is definitely slower now, you know? As a teenager, I could practice just four to five hours a day; now it has to be at least six to seven.”
Kim’s philosophy for piano is strikingly similar to Alfred Brendel’s, the legendary Austrian who retired a few years ago.
“There are too many pianists in the world... If you want to show something that only you can do, and you’re really obsessed about that, it won’t get anywhere.”
His goal is to “touch,” or master, all the works he loves in the piano repertoire, and his regimen certainly shows it. For the last two years, he takes 15 minutes for meals and rarely meets with anyone, he says, except when he goes for a walk around the campus of KyungHee University, where he now teaches full-time.
If Dostoyevsky was right — and if happiness is learning how to be alone — then this pianist is certainly right there, and his future gleams bright.