Although you certainly couldn't tell it by just looking at her, violinist Jae-Kyung Kim is a mountain climber. No, not the kind who uses ropes, crampons and ice axes, but rather the kind who has a strong sense of where up is in her musical growth and is quietly determined to keep heading in that direction. The rise began early, in Seoul, Korea. After a brief introduction to the piano, sufficient to produce a life-long affection for its music, Kim, then aged 7, began to study the violin and take part in her school orchestra. A few years later -- she was now in 6th grade -- her whole family came to the States, settling in Arlington, Virginia.
Asked when she realized music was going to be her life, she hesitates slightly, then says, "Well, I never thought about that. I just always was a musician." She was having private lessons and continued her studies, right through to a Master's degree at Peabody. "I really wanted to go to Eastman because a great friend was there, but I bombed the audition and didn't get a scholarship," she told me with refreshing candor. As soon as she finished her degree, of course she had to go out and find work. Improbable as it may seem, now that she's been here as second violinist in the famed Pro Arte Quartet since 1988, replacing Martha Blum, this job is actually her first professional position.
The first three years were not so easy, she reports. "I was in a strange place, feeling lots of pressure from the new job, and full of high ideals, some of which I had to grow up from. But I liked the friendliness of Madison and I was very determined. I knew it would be what I could make of it, and though I was neither weak nor unsure of myself, I recognized that I didn't yet know enough about myself to achieve my full potential." The mountain-climbing metaphor is Kim's own. I had asked her to contrast solo playing with chamber music. "When you're climbing a mountain," she said, "doing it together with others makes the job easier, because of the teamwork. When you're alone, there's greater freedom to go with the figures in your head in a more spontaneous way, and of course if it works, you've succeeded in getting up there." There was also a cultural obstacle to be overcome. "In Korea, it's a norm to blend in. Here in the States with the Quartet, I tried at first to blend in, to go to the same place. But it didn't balance, and I wasn't happy because I didn't feel like I was contributing. I've since learned that I have to know more than my own part, and having done that I now feel I'm a full fourth of the effort."
Additional steps up the mountain have expanded on her learning from playing of one kind of music and benefitted her playing of another kind, Kim said. "When John DeMain did the Mahler First Symphony, I played viola. I had the strongest feeling that all that music was me, I was in the music, had become the music; the whole orchestra was me." This striking image, I think, goes some little distance in explaining Kim's approach to music and indeed the result. In the past I had noted, occasionally critically, that she stayed pretty close to the notes, too close, I sometimes felt. "It's only fairly recently," she said, "that I've started to really analyze the score. Before, I barely looked at it, just enough to get the notes. I like being organized and being under control, and this has perhaps kept me from taking risks." This too could have a cultural dimension, since risk-taking is by its nature a highly assertive, sometimes even aggressive condition, something that would go counter to Kim's early formative background.
The very next staging point on the mountain will present Kim the chance to be more assertive. On 8:00 p.m. on February 11, she will appear with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra at the First Congregational Church as soloist in the Mozart Violin Concerto No. 4. "In contrast to the Vivaldi [the Four Seasons, which she played last year with the WCO] I'll have a much greater opportunity to lead strongly." Combining this intention with the idea of playing the whole orchestra oneself, there's a good possibility that we'll shortly hear a new Jae Kim, hailing us joyfully from the summit. I finished up my delightful conversation with her by asking what music is; she was wonderfully clear and decisive: "A language. Communication. That's it."
Isthmus, February, 1995
Copyright 1995 Jess Anderson