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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Not Just to Hear

From the Vault Dept.: Jin Kim took the baton of the Empire State Youth Orchestra in 2000, an ensemble I’d been trying to pay attention to for several years, especially as a string of notable music directors passed through. Kim was succeeded in 2002 by Helen Cha-Pyo, who continues to lead the orchestra, while he is now music director of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra (formerly the Hingham (Mass.) Symphony), with which he’s been associated for many years.


IT’S DIFFICULT FOR AN ORCHESTRA to maintain a standard of excellence. It’s more difficult still when a large number of players have to be replaced each year. But that’s standard for the Empire State Youth Orchestra, whose alumni have gone on to some prestigious gigs.

Jin Kim
That includes its conductors. Among recent baton wielders, Eiji Oue and Paavo Jarvi have earned international careers and reputations, so it makes sense to keep an eye on the current maestro.

Jin Kim makes his public debut as the ensemble’s new music director with a concert at 8 PM Saturday (Nov. 4) at the Troy Music Hall. Not one to start off cautiously, he has selected a challenging program that includes Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russian” Symphony and the Valses nobles et sentimentales by Ravel.

He’s obviously pleased to be here, and lavishes praise on the orchestra. “It’s energizing to work with so many talented musicians,” he says. “Multi-talented, in fact, because most of them are also involved in sports and other extra-curricular activities.”

Kim is similarly multi-faceted. He brings a background as a pianist and singer to conducting, but that wasn’t his career choice when he started college. “I was deeply involved in community organizing and civil rights issues. I became president of the college’s Multicultural Student Union and was very involved in the diversity scene.” This was at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, not far from where Kim’s family settled when they left Seoul, Korea, in 1980.

“I was 12 years old then, and I think my parents were smart to move in August. School started right away and I had to start learning English and making friends right away. It was too shocking to do anything but plunge into that activity.”

Although he began piano and voice lessons at the age of seven, he didn’t find a consuming passion for music until well into his college career. “I certainly appreciated music-making through my high school years, but it wasn’t until I began graduate school that I realized that I wanted music to be my career.”

He pursued conducting at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where he took a Master of Music degree in that field. “There’s a reason that conducting is a separate degree. It’s all consuming, taking much more from you than just being a committed and dedicated musician. Also, it’s a challenging role to lead an orchestra. Whatever physical movement you make on the podium affects the entire group. It’s a huge responsibility.”

Kim moved to Boston to study with David Hoose at Boston University’s School for the Arts, where he also became assistant conductor of the Boston University Symphony Orchestra. Since 1997, he has been music director of the Hingham Symphony Orchestra, not far from Boston, which he helped evolve from a volunteer group to a professional orchestra, increasing its schedule and adding chamber music events and educational outreach concerts.

Working in the Capital Region with the students, however, “is a contrast to my work with the Hingham Symphony. There I’m working with people who have been making music longer, but the freshness that the young musicians bring to the Youth Orchestra is very exciting. This is a great opportunity for a young conductor. Conductors are teachers, wherever you are, but with a youth orchestra the teacher’s role is seen more clearly. And I learn from them every day, too, just as teachers in other disciplines learn from their students.”

Although many music directors try to impose a style or sound on an orchestra, Kim plans to continue what’s already in progress in here. “It’s one of the nation’s best youth orchestras, so my challenge is to maintain the quality of music-making and education. Also, working with this kind of orchestra means that you have to let the music go sometimes and just be with them, helping everybody learn to be aware of what’s happening.

“My goal here is to listen – not just to hear. To be at one with the music. And that’s what I want to help teach these players to do. When you’re in an orchestra, you have to be aware of everything that’s happening around you. Horn players have to know what the violins are doing, what the tympani are doing. It’s a community of players, working as one.”

And that brings him back to community organizing. “An orchestra is a good example of a community. It’s a microcosm of what you find in life – people working together, forced to overcome any differences in order to achieve a common goal. That’s great preparation for other situations you’ll find in life.”

Metroland Magazine, 2 November 2000

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