Jonah Kim


By Scott MacClelland

JONAH KIM has so far packed a lifetime of experience into just thirty years. Born in Seoul in 1988, he acquired a world-class musical education at the most prestigious music schools in America, winning a scholarship to attend Juilliard at age seven. Later he studied at the Curtis Institute. A list of his cello teachers reads like a who’s who of the instrument in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries: Janos Starker, Mstislav Rostropovich and, by lineage, Yo-Yo Ma. He also studied with no less-eminent cellists Peter Wiley, Orlando Cole, David Soyer, Joel Krosnick, Aldo Parisot and Lynn Harrell.

After a military career, Kim’s father took the cloth as a Protestant minister. A music lover, he introduced his young son to the cello who learned by imitating VHS video’s of Pablo Casals playing the solo cello suites of JS Bach. Then began international travel. The family came to the US and, Kim recalls, “between the ages of five and seven, it seemed we moved every couple of months. I was always making new friends.” Kim’s father served as a traveling pastor while also building social infrastructure on behalf of Korean communities all over the US. “We had relatives in Florida and Seattle.” The boy learned to speak English in New York public schools.

Kim began his conservatory studies at seven and made rapid progress. At Curtis, where he built a grand network of lifelong friends and colleagues, he says, “I came along at exactly the right time.” That ‘right time’ was an unexpected shift away from the previous territorial attitudes among the faculty about their individual stables of pupils to one of generosity of spirit, encouraging their students to learn what they could from other faculty. To his “great” additional benefit, he was able to study with violinists Jaime Laredo, Aaron Rosand, Joseph Silverstein and Arnold Steinhardt as well as pianists Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman, Seymour Lipkin, Claude Frank and Edward Aldwell.

During the course of the next ten years, Kim “got good” with computers, considered a military career and studied martial arts. At age 13, early in 2002, he made his professional debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the esteemed conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, in Saint-Saën’s Concerto in A minor. The introduction to the soloist’s first entrance is a single loud chord on the orchestra. “I was still bowing. I played my opening line while standing up,” he remembers.

When Kim had the opportunity to play for Janos Starker during a masterclass at Indiana University, the famed artist-teacher invited him to accept private lessons. “He let me stay with him for those two years.” Starker was easily the most sought-after cello pedagogue in the country. “He threw everything at me, starting with the hardest stuff, like the solo sonata by Kodály.” Kim says this was the most intense period of his musical education. “He was very kind to me, but it was every day and nonstop. It was the greatest time of my life,” he says. “ He was like a musical father to me. I think he was amused to hear his own playing in my playing.” Adding that Starker “never took a dime from me,” Starker finally told Kim that “I should do it.” A star of the cello was born.

Jonah Kim has played with major orchestras in the US, Britain and Europe, in many of the highest profile venues, and has shared the stage with headline artists on four continents. He is recipient of two Grammys and follows an itinerary of commitments and performances that only a marathon runner could keep up with. He regularly participates in annual music festivals, including the Atlantic Music Festival, Bari International Music Festival, Cactus Pear Music Festival, Chamber Music Silicon Valley and Hong Kong Arts Festival. He has appeared locally with Rebecca Jackson’s Music in May, the Hidden Valley String Orchestra and Mozaic in San Luis Obispo.  

Kim cultivates a keen interest in new music and, through his Ensemble San Francisco foundation, has commissioned new works. At Curtis, and since, “most of my best friends are composers, I hang out with them, we write music together.” Among others—he has about 30 pieces written especially for him by then-student composers—“Sheridan (Seyfried) is my musical brother and I performed his wife, Ya-Jhu Yang’s, cello concerto.”   

Kim is nominally the principal cellist of the Santa Cruz Symphony—with which he will be soloist in the Dvořák concerto this weekend—though his schedule is so tight he has rarely appeared in the orchestra. He is a huge fan of the Bohemian composer and has made pilgrimages to his house in New York—it’s gone now but a plaque honors the composer—and in Prague, when he visited his sister who was working there at the time. He likes to tell stories about Dvořák, how he loved his wife’s sister as much as, perhaps more than, his wife. “In New York he had completed the concerto when he got word that his sister-in-law had died. In her honor he revised the concerto, quoting one of his songs that was her favorite.”

Leberta Lorál

By Susan Meister

LEBERTA LORÁL is a tall woman whose magisterial presence easily dominates a concert stage, yet her affect bespeaks gentility, even formality. She has a deeper speaking voice than one would associate with a soprano, which indeed she is, and while she exudes confidence, there is no hint of overweening ambition.  She has the voice to justify nearly any aspiration she might conjure, yet she steers away from outlining a detailed strategic plan that might lead her to fame and fortune. She has goals, but they are modest ones for now (“to keep my voice healthy and to sing full time”). The latter might be accomplished in short order: she has just engaged her first agent.

Leberta Lorál, native of Seaside, is a homegrown talent.  She started college at MPC as a music major with a concentration of piano, with the intention of becoming a concert pianist, but the head of the music department at the time suggested she focus on voice instead. “I literally gave up piano that day and changed to voice,” she says. At age 19, that was the beginning of her classical vocal training.

From childhood, Lorál grew up in a church where many of the congregants had studied and read music.  The majority of music sung came from hymnals, although there were cantatas, anthems, and more formal spirituals versus the modern form of Gospel music. This was the limit of the sophistication of the vocal music to which she was exposed, yet not long after her decision to study voice, she won the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. That established her as a classical talent. The Monterey Symphony, I Cantori and the Monterey Choral Society would call her parents’ home to ask if she was available for solo assignments, but even with that encouragement, she soon recognized that she would have to leave home if she was to continue her training. She transferred to Cal Poly Pomona to finish college.

Lorál spread her wings wide when she moved to Los Angeles. She sang in the LA Opera chorus, was a featured soloist with the LA Philharmonic’s summer concert series at the Hollywood Bowl, the Southeast Symphony, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. In 2000 she went to Europe for the role of Serena in Porgy and Bess. In 2010, she decided to move to Europe where she was a soloist in Mahler’s Rückert Lieder in Munich under the baton of Andreas Pascal Heinzmann. Her growing repertoire and her connections were leading to main stage roles when, in 2011, she returned to Seaside for a two week vacation to find her mother ill. For Lorál, there was no hesitation: she would stay to take care of her mother until her death in 2013. She describes the experience as so traumatic that she didn’t sing for two years afterward, and yet she still does not regard her homecoming as an “interruption” in her career. “It was more like just coming back to a place where it all began,” she says, and an opportunity to take care of her mother when she was needed the most.

While not having all the singing opportunities she would like in Monterey County, Lorál has made some notable appearances that have attracted critical acclaim. These include solos with the Camerata Singers, which mounted a concert for the benefit of homeless women in this area and regarded as a major success, not the least of which was for Lorál herself, who was able to demonstrate her mesmerizing talent when she sang Henry Mollicone’s moving Beatitude Mass. She will appear again with Camerata in March 2019 to sing Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem in a concert to benefit the Veterans Transition Center.  She has generously offered her talent to the Monterey County Composers’ Forum, singing local composer Rick Yramategui’s melting “Look at the birds in the field.” She also performs at salon concerts, where audiences can appreciate the range and power of her voice in a small setting, recalling the days when most music was heard in private homes. She has the ability to interpret songs from the Baroque to the contemporary, and in fact collaborates closely with living composers like Richard Thompson, whom she met when she performed his music as a featured soloist in the 20th Annual Conference of the African American Song Alliance. During that conference, he asked her to record roles for his opera “Mask in the Mirror,” based on the work of American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (the CD release is slated for January 2019 by Parma Records on the Naxos label). Composer Frederick Bayani Mabalot has written music dedicated to her.

Described as a “spinto soprano”—that is, a voice that has the power and volume to sustain long lyric phrases and can easily be heard over an orchestra (Leontyne Price was such a soprano), Lorál’s repertoire includes a broad range of pieces from Bach’s Mass in B Minor to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In all of these pieces, such a voice is artistic bliss.

These days, Lorál is coached by Met Opera mezzo Susanne Mentzer and is building up her repertoire of arias. Would she consider moving to Europe if there were roles available to her? “Absolutely,” she says, “It’s just me now, so there are no longer any barriers.” She marvels at the fact that opportunities in her home area are so few, even for performers as well known as Mentzer. “If you’re local, you’re not considered exotic enough to warrant an invitation.” So if Lorál does get to Europe to develop her career further, the invitations from Monterey and Santa Cruz county musical organizations should come pouring in.

Would she want to make her debut at the Met, and is that even possible now? 

“It’s never too late to make your Metropolitan Opera debut,” she says, pointing out the examples of the great contralto Marian Anderson who made her debut in her late 50s, and Swiss tenor Hugues Cuénod, who made his own debut in Puccini’s “Turandot” at the age of 84. Leberta Lorál has a long way to go before she rivals his record, but that path will have begun right here in Seaside.