Violinist Hyewon Kim’s unique solo turn


Tagged Under: 2019.20 Season, Classics, MSO Musicians, Violin

Andy Warhol may have exaggerated when he said that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. At the Milwaukee Symphony’s upcoming concerts, Hyewon Kim will be the center of attention for about one minute.

Kim, who has played in the MSO’s second violin section since 2016, will be sitting last chair this weekend – exactly the spot where composer Alfred Schnittke wanted a solo to open his (K)ein Sommernachtstraum.

As a child and teenager in her native Korea, Kim studied violin, pushed along by a mother who had trained as a pianist but worked in a dentist’s office. With the goal of teaching violin at a Korean university, she came to the United States for her master’s degree at Yale. While playing summer festivals, she realized the possibilities of orchestral music, and after the umpteenth recital, “I realized I didn’t want to be alone onstage. It felt really lonely.”

Still thinking about being a professor, she enrolled at Stony Brook University on Long Island for a DMA. While master’s degrees are very common in the ranks of full-time orchestras, doctorates are quite rare. By the time a musician gets one, he or she is usually off the audition circuit, and in fact, Kim knows people who have left doctoral programs after winning auditions  “because they didn’t need it anymore.”

But Kim finished her degree while taking auditions. “It didn’t hurt to have it, and if I wanted to teach, it would help,” she said. “And I learned a lot. I read a lot of books and did a lot of writing, and I found that it’s hard to understand any piece without background. You might just show up for rehearsal without knowing anything about the piece. But for this piece, the solo, I had to look it up.”

(K)ein Sommernachtstraum, which translates as “(Not) A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” was written in 1985 by the German-Russian composer Alfred Schnittke. The opening solo for last-chair violin is a charming waltz tune that keeps recurring in increasingly bizarre transformations over the course of 10 minutes. “I wanted to understand how Schnittke felt, to try to feel that way when I play,” Kim said. “I want to interpret it from the evidence, and not my imagination. Is it Viennese or Russian? He wrote it right before he went into a coma; is it sarcasm, or pure melody? Those questions would change my articulation and my sound.”

A section violinist rarely gets a chance to make decisions like that, but this week, Kim has a higher profile. Speaking of the MSO’s music director and concertmaster, she said, “Ken-David (Masur) would never tell Frank (Almond) how to play a solo. He’s very respectful that way.”

“Hyewon is an incredible player, and she’s not going to have a problem with it,” Almond said, “but it’s odd to sit in the back all those years, and suddenly there you are. One of the hardest places to sit is the back of the section. It’s difficult to hear and feel connected.”

Kim admits that she may be nervous playing a solo line, but she had to learn to deal with nerves while taking auditions. She remembers that a previous teacher told her, “Your sound should be enthusiastic and fiery, but your heart and your brain have to be cold.”

She also absorbed the lesson that “what matters is how you sound, not how you look” – an insight that has helped her avoid performance-related injury in recent years. At one point, she was losing feeling in her thumb, but with the help of a physical therapist she traced the problem to her back and the way she sat. She used to move a lot as she played, but “in a sitting position, that’s very bad for your back,” she said. Now, playing in a slightly reclined position, “it might look boring or very controlled from the audience, but that’s what I have to do in order to last 30 more years.”

Kim lives in Franklin with her husband, conductor Ben Firer. Since most of his work is in Illinois, convenience to I-94 is a priority. She plays with Chicago’s Grant Park Symphony in the summer, and she sometimes substitutes with the Chicago Symphony.  When she is not working, “I prefer not to do anything,” she joked – the busy playing schedule means down time is important. And rather than listen to other genres of music, “I prefer silence.”