What: Violinist Michelle Kim with pianist Adam Golka
When: 7:30 p.m. March 30
Where: Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., Bend
Cost: $42, $10 students, available in advance at highdesertchambermusic.com or the HDCM office, 961 NW Brooks St., in downtown Bend, or call 541-306-3988
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-306-3988
If you or someone you love got a late start learning to play an instrument, take hope from virtuosa Michelle Kim.
Kim, who will make her first appearance in Oregon when she closes out High Desert Chamber Music’s 2018-19 season, was 11 when she began playing violin. That’s a relatively old age for a beginning violinist who would go on to play professionally in the New York Philharmonic, where she has served as assistant concertmaster since 2001.
And if that instrument of choice was never really a choice to begin with, well, Kim’s been there and done that, too.
“I was forced,” she said with a laugh after being asked how she started playing violin. “I was forced to play the instrument.”
Allow her to explain.
“My father was a quite successful composer and TV producer for music in Seoul, Korea. Me coming from a very Christian family — both of my grandfathers were pastors,” she said. “They all — my dad’s side, my mom’s side — loved some sort of music, whether it be in the form of singing, or any type of instrument.”
The family would convene every Sunday.
“My father is one of seven, so you can imagine how big that family was when we all got together,” Kim said. “Instead of praying during mealtime, we would all sing. Somebody played something, somebody sang something, and I was in the chorus. I played a little bit of piano. I played a little bit of violin. I did a little bit of everything.”
Her aunt on her mother’s side suggested Kim go to America to study, and that soon became the plan.
“My dad said, ‘When you go to America, you have to play an instrument.’ I said, ‘Why?’” Kim recalled, laughing. “I said, ‘OK, so you want me to play violin, because that’s your dream, but not my dream. But you still want me to play because I have to when I go to America.’ And he’s like, ‘Yes.’”
She did as her father told her, and then some. After she and her aunt moved to Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, they took in a performance by young violinists Robert Chen, who is now Chicago Symphony’s concertmaster, and Sheryl Staples, now a colleague of Kim as New York Philharmonic’s principal associate concertmaster.
At that time, the two were part of famed violin instructor Robert Lipsett’s studio class of just four students. When Kim heard them perform, “My mouth dropped to the floor. I’m going, ‘What is that? It can’t be violin. I don’t sound like that at all,” Kim said.
She describes Lipsett as “one of the greatest violin teachers on Earth.” But at the time, Lipsett was just starting out as a teacher.
His class soon expanded to five once Kim, as she put it, “was miraculously added on, thanks to my aunt.”
A hard worker even at 11, “I was incredibly motivated by my teacher, my classmates and the studio,” she said.
However, in her late teens, Kim went through a period of “burnout.”
“That’s totally normal, and totally OK to admit that you go through a burnout period,” she said. After a year or two spent “doing nothing, and doing crazy teenager, early 20s (things) … I looked back, and I said, ‘You know what? I think I want to play the violin again because I spent too much money on that damn thing. … So until I make all the money back, I’m going to play the violin again, and I’m going to play it well.’”
Kim is nothing if not honest. After the initial excitement of her professional career began to fade, she said, her relationship to the violin went in cycles.
“You hate it, and then you love it again, and then you hate it again, and then you love it again. And then, at one point, you realize, without music, it’s not really you. That’s what was YOU.”
Now, Kim said, she can’t live without the violin.
“Music, it defines me. The way I play it is my personality,” she said. “When I close my eyes, I hear and see music. So, yeah, here I am.”
That realization and acceptance occurred only in the last few years, said Kim, who’s the mother of two teens. Yes, they play music: Her son, the trumpet, her daughter, the flute and violin.
However, their mother did not foist music on them. That apple fell far from the family tree.
“I was trying to convince them not to play music,” Kim said. “But they really, really wanted to play. And that was kind of the point of it. I said, ‘Unless you really, really, REALLY want to play, you shouldn’t be picking up an instrument. … You shouldn’t be doing it just because other kids are doing it, but you should be doing it because you appreciate the instrument.’”
And, she told them, “You don’t have to be a full-out musician, but you can definitely be an advocate for classical music.”
A day prior to her performance at the Tower, Kim will lead a master class for violinists from 5 to 7 p.m. March 29 at Bend Church. The class is free and open for the public to observe.
Several years ago, Kim launched the Doublestop Foundation, which puts stringed instruments in the hands of financially strapped young musicians.
That’s a struggle she faced during her own youth.
“I wasn’t able to get any kind of instrument because I was too young and just starting the violin,” she said. Lipsett’s studio was able to acquire instruments via a sponsorship program that paired Kim with a beautiful violin by 19th-century French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume.
“I was very lucky,” she said. However, to participate in that program, students had to receive recommendations. That wasn’t a problem for Kim, but she’s never forgotten friends who wanted an instrument to play but didn’t have anyone in their corner to recommend them.
Further, the cut-off for the program was age 25.
“I had to give the instrument back,” Kim said. “So that was devastating. People would say, ‘You could’ve made money till that point … and maybe, you could’ve had the money to buy your own instrument.’ But it’s not that easy when instruments range between $200 and $20 million. When you buy an instrument, you want to make sure you buy the right one.”
Therefore, Doublestop Foundation’s program is open to anyone in financial need who would like to audition.
“If they’re talented, let them come,” Kim said.
The organization also gives young professionals a little longer to become established in their careers, with a cut-off age of 30.
“Because ultimately, when you need the instrument most is after you finish school and start to look for a job,” Kim said. “When you’re instrument-less, you can’t look for a job.”