Korean-Japanese conductor Seikyo Kim, 38, is one of the most promising artists of his generation. What was most important for him? "Just believing in yourself,'' Kim told The Korea Times. "It's always about believing in yourself, having that confidence. You always have to trust your abilities. There's not one instance when I said maybe (music) is not for me,'' he smiled.
/ Courtesy of Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
This is the 10th in a series of interviews with the next generation of classical musicians ― ED
Given Seikyo Kim's well-established reputation, it is perhaps misleading to include the 38-year-old conductor in this pool of ``next generation'' artists alongside budding teenage violinists.
As Vladimir Jurowski ― another ``young, star conductor'' like Kim ― said during a recent tour here, musicality and age are indeed two different things. But like Jurowski said, music does in fact get ``more interesting as (musicians) become older.''
Considering Kim's biologically young age, classical music expects more from one of today ― and tomorrow's ― most talented conductors, particularly since his music is all about bridging the old and new.
``You're in the best spot to hear the best music in the world,'' Kim told The Korea Times about the beauty of conducting. ``I always say, keep the old music alive and perform the work of the masters in the way they want it. We tend to play everything in the mode of the 20th century, which is wrong,'' he said.
Kim is known for period-style performances, particularly that of the late 18th to early 19th century music by German masters like Beethoven and Schumann. ``The great thing about conducting is that we're able to touch the music and touch those musicians' ideas and thoughts directly and then reproduce it in the present world,'' he said.
``The performing practices of the 20th century have actually destroyed a lot of the good things of the old style. I actually want to get that back. That's one big, big part of my life as a musician, and as a conductor I need to keep saying to the modern people, hey, look back,'' he said.
``We're living in the 21st century but we're dealing with 19th, 18th century music and we have to go back to that mindset. Here (in Korea) not many are practicing that. In Japan, we've been doing that it for the last six, seven years. But we're still behind, though. In Europe they've been doing that for 30 years,'' he said.
Born in Osaka, Japan, Kim started playing the piano at age three and the violin at seven. When he turned 14, he moved to the United States. After majoring in philosophy in college, he studied conducting at the New England Conservatory and then Musikhochschule in Vienna.
After winning the 1996 International Competition for Young Conductors in Portugal, he made a highly acclaimed conducting debut in Japan. In 1998, Kim grabbed first prize at Denmark's prestigious Nikolai-Malko International Conductor's Competition, which put him on the map of world classical music.
The conductor was recently in town to perform with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. ``Overall they're very young, energetic. Young also means there's a drawback, because it means inexperienced too,'' he said about the ensemble.
``Right now it's time for them to find their own sound and whatnot. What I can tell is that everyone is very enthusiastic and willing to make music. As a group they have a long way to go, but it's good, because they're improving and going in a good direction under maestro Chung (Myung-whun),'' he said.
The April 23 concert marked the finale of the Seoul Arts Center's Orchestra Festival. The group gave zestful and lively yet refined renditions of Sibelius's Violin Concerto and Prokofiev's 5th Symphony. The concerto was particularly engaging, with an electric solo by 21-year-old violinist Shin Hyun-su.
It was Kim's third time in the country. ``I'm Korean, but I'm not Korean, as you know,'' said the third generation Japanese-born Korean. ``I'm quite Japanese but inside, it's very different. I feel close to (Korea) sometimes.
``I feel comfortable. Last time I came (to Korea) I felt uncomfortable being Korean-Japanese, particularly with the older generation who didn't want to relate to us,'' he said, looking relaxed in a red hooded sweater. Stripped of his black and white tuxedo, the conductor was, offstage, down to earth and spoke openly.
Much has changed for both countries. In 2005, Kim performed in a concert featuring hallyu star Bae Yong-joon, affectionately dubbed ``Yonsama'' by his Japanese fans. ``The fact that (Bae) has changed so much about the idea about Koreans in Japan, it's been quite helpful. I guess culture changes a lot of ideas in our stereotypes about each other, in our long, complicated history of Japan and Korea,'' he said.
Kim himself is a huge star and inspired the sensational comic and TV series ``Nodame Cantabile.'' ``It was a huge success (in Japan),'' Japan's premier classical guitarist Kaori Muraji said in a previous Korea Times interview. ``They say that it caused the young to go to orchestra concerts,'' she said. The TV soap version aired in Korea, garnering a considerable fan base.
Attracting Young People to Old Music
Kim chuckled when ``Nodame Cantabile'' came up, though he spoke very fondly of Muraji. ``I always say I'm a backstage guy. I should be upfront, but I'm not so much interested in who I am; I'm interested in what I'm thinking.
``It's very difficult to be a performer onstage but I've got my butt to the audience and I always try to hide my personality. I'm there, but I wouldn't get in the way of the music. Music should come out first and not the performer. The ideal is that the audience and we are immersed in it, and we feel just music and nothing else,'' he said.
``I tried to write music but it's impossible to create something so incredible out of nothing. And I'm just a normal man you see,'' he said. ``The filter (between the music and audience) is me, and naturally many of the audience are interested in what I do and that's very nice and I respect that. But my actual goal is to make those people feel more interested in music and not me,'' he said, pointing out that only 1 percent of the Japanese population is acquainted with classical music.
While it's great that ``Nodame Cantabile'' opened doors to those unfamiliar with the genre, there are problems, he warned. Many concerts related to the comic feature fractured movements from a dozen different pieces, which makes concentration difficult.
``It was more like a trend. But a trend is a trend, though some (of the fans) have stayed with us. It'd be great for them to learn how to read the music, the background and history, and classical music will become so much more enjoyable,'' he said.
Kim also expressed concern with the practicality of music education in Japan. ``They make girls play the piano and they don't become pianists and they don't even listen to classical music. It's a problem in Japan, we don't have quality audiences,'' he said.
``In 30, 40 years time, When I get really old I'd like to change the concept of classical music education,'' he said.
It's all about staying true to the original but what's the significance of reviving antiquated styles in the 21st century? ``That's a good question. I always think about what's the whole point of doing it. The point is the music should sound the way it was produced.
``It's all smart speculation. Of course I'm never going to get the right answer because (the composers) are all dead. But at least I'm looking for it, and I want to share with people and let them realize there's so much beauty in this old music,'' he said.
While he repeatedly expressed concern about whether or not he's doing the ``right'' thing as a conductor, it all stems from his most profound, unwavering love for music.
``I love music probably more than anyone else ― that's one thing I guess that makes me special from others. I want to let people know this is the great thing and not me,'' he smiled.
But such unassuming, almost self-sacrificing love for music shines through, making it hard to divert one's attention away from this maestro conductor onstage.