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.”