James Jeonghwan Kim in Review

James Jeonghwan Kim, cello
Larry Wang, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall; New York, NY
February 3, 2013
James Kim

James Kim: Photo credit: Ryan Moon

There are debuts and debuts:  the blood bank of human endeavor is forever bringing new musical talent to the fore. But I daresay, the recital of a 19-year-old cellist at Weill Hall on February 3rd was more than merely excellent, it was an historical coming of a fully honed master virtuoso; one is compelled to formulate new standards for the golden instrument!

Young Mr. Kim came to us with formidable credentials. The young artist was born in Seoul, Korea in 1993 and began his studies with Susan Moses, with whom he worked for five years at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. During this time he also received tutelage from Janos Starker, and later from Laurence Lesser at the New England Conservatory. He also enrolled at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, and is currently studying at Yale with Aldo Parisot. It goes without saying that during his apprenticeship to some of the most illustrious and revered pedagogues of his instrument, Mr. Kim has garnered competition prizes and performance laurels (e.g. The Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall; the NEC Youth Orchestra at Jordan Hall; the Korean Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra in his native South Korea– just to cite a few of his accomplishments–before making his official debut at Weill Hall).

But all of this foregoing is commonplace: after a few astonishing and beautifully tapered, long spun phrases of Schubert’s “Arpeggione” Sonata, D.821, this astonished and experienced connoisseur realized that James Kim is a miracle. Never mind my hyperbole; the absolute perfection of his playing, technically, musically and communicatively, had me recalling Casals, Fournier, Rostropovich and Tortelier (of a very different school) but likewise, Feuermann, Yo-Yo-Ma, Miklós Perényi, Heifetz (of a closely analogous virtuoso persuasion), and of course Kim’s mentors, Starker and Parisot. Never before, have I encountered such winged ease, such airborne joy, such silken smooth bowing and tone production. All of these facets were present at the service of stylistic knowledge, bracing rhythmic thrust and most importantly, an inviting warmth and modest honesty.

The Schubert Sonata was played with the first movement repeat, forward momentum and necessary flexibility. Kim’s assisting pianist, Larry Weng, a pupil of Boris Berman at Yale, supplied spot-on ensemble and concentration. He also won a “Brownie Point” by using the Barenreiter Edition, with its corrected harmonies in the central Adagio.

The Debussy D Minor Sonata that followed also had the requisite impetuosity and unpredictability. Altogether, a volatile, wonderfully shaded and exquisitely timed rendition from both protagonists.

Isang Yun’s short unaccompanied piece, “Glissees pour violoncello seul”, especially written for a competition in 1970, makes, as intended, fiendishly difficult demands on the player, but Kim mastered these hurdles as if they were child’s play.

The Mendelssohn D Major Sonata, Op. 58 (more frequently played than its predecessor, No. 1 in B-Flat) took off in a shower of gravel, a galloping interpretation (with pianist Weng as an ideal co-jockey).

There was an encore, too: Rostropovich’s Humoreske, which resembled David Popper’s “Elfentanz”, albeit with an unfamiliar, sinister spice.

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra led by Gustavo Dudamel with featured artists Lang Lang and Yo-Yo Ma

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Carnegie Hall: Stern Auditorium; New York, NY
October 3, 2010

Gustavo Dudamel. Photo Credit Chris Lee

For the Vienna Philharmonic’s last two concerts, the young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel took over from the veteran Nikolaus Harnoncourt, and a greater contrast can hardly be imagined. Even the seating of the string sections was different: Harnoncourt had the violins on opposite sides of the stage, Dudamel had them side by side. Only a few years ago, Dudamel created a sensation with his extraordinary talent; his amazing youthful accomplishments in his own country and abroad and his meteoric rise to fame culminated in his appointment as the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Music Director last season. He has impressed New York audiences conducting not only his Venezuelan Youth Orchestra (which he has been leading for eleven years and is now replicating in Los Angeles), but also great orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, and his appearances are always eagerly anticipated. The Vienna Philharmonic’s concerts were no exception.

 The three romantic masterpieces on the final program: Brahms’ “Tragic Overture,” Schumann’s Cello Concerto, and Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony, seemed a perfect choice for displaying Dudamel’s boundless energy, exuberance, and involvement. And indeed his performance of the Brahms was full of promise: noble, somber and austere, it struck a fine balance between passion and restraint, intensity and release. There were no extremes of tempo or dynamics, none of the whispering and crashing of the Vienna Philharmonic’s earlier Beethoven program.

 If anyone whispered, it was Yo-Yo Ma in the Schumann. Of all the great cello concertos, this is perhaps the least soloistic; it feels less like a showpiece than a conversation between soloist and orchestra. Emphasizing its intimacy, inwardness, and the poetic, almost spoken quality of its phrasing and melodic rise and fall, Ma interacted closely with the concertmaster and with the principal cellist in their slow movement duet. Unfortunately, his best intentions were defeated by the size of Carnegie Hall; his playing had all its customary beauty, variety and expressiveness, but his tone was often lost in the large space. Nevertheless, he received a standing ovation, and, after embracing the conductor and as many members of the orchestra as he could reach, notably the principal cellist, he returned to play the first movement of Bach’s G-major solo Suite.

The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra Led by Gustavo Dudamel in Stern Auditorium/Perelman Stage with featuring artist Lang Lang. Photo Credit - Chris Lee


If the Brahms, with its avoidance of exaggeration, had brought out the best in Dudamel, the Dvorák did the opposite. Everything was excessive and overdone. There was no whispering, but plenty of crashing; this must have been the loudest “New World” within memory. The sound was so thick that many important melodic and harmonic details were lost; the build-ups were so precipitous that climaxes were often reached long before their time. The temptation to draw maximal sound from a great orchestra must be irresistible to a conductor, especially a young firebrand; Dudamel seemed to be unleashing the elemental forces of nature. His conducting style is marked by an almost unremitting tension; he seems like a taut wire, physically and emotionally. Conducting from memory, his gestures were angular and stabbing, producing lots of aggressive accents, or large and sweeping, producing great masses of sound. The result was a “New World” Symphony long on drama, intensity and drive, short on lyricism and repose. The audience responded with the sort of screaming associated with rock stars rather than classical conductors; the encore, the Waltz from Bernstein’s Divertimento, was blessedly quiet.

Though it is true that Dvorák’s “American” works were influenced by native American idioms, his own native Czech idiom is never far away; in fact, his music seemed to get increasingly Czech as he became more homesick. If he had lived long enough to hear the words “Going home” later added to the English horn melody in the “New World” Symphony’s slow movement (played beautifully at this concert), he might have felt that they echoed his own sentiments.