In 2011, San Francisco Symphony violinist Kum Mo Kim received an unexpected gift in the mail from former Symphony music director Herbert Blomstedt. It was a photograph, one Kim had never seen before. Dated Aug. 16, 1953, and published in the New York Herald Tribune, it featured two Tanglewood students sitting at the feet of Charles Munch, conductor of the Boston Symphony.
One of these was a 26-year-old Blomstedt. The other was a young man Kim recognized immediately: her father, John S. Kim, a musician who would go on to alter the course of musical history in Asia, with ripple effects felt worldwide.
This week, as the San Francisco Symphony begins its first tour of Kim’s native Korea, one of the most dramatic East-meets-West stories in the music world remains largely unknown.
A family threatened
The idea of Asian musicians winning classical competitions and proliferating institutions of Western music is hardly novel. Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho, for just one instance, made his San Francisco Symphony debut on Nov. 6 after winning the prestigious International Chopin competition in Warsaw. He is now a superstar.
But how did Korea become a classical music powerhouse?
“We’re a very passionate people,” says Kum Mo Kim, who’s been with the Symphony for 41 years. “But I must give credit to my father, John S. Kim. He was the one who brought classical music to Korea.”
In 1948, John S. Kim (the ‘S’ stands for ‘Seong Ryo’, his Korean name) founded the Seoul National Philharmonic, the first symphony orchestra in Korea. But as the Korean war ravaged the country a few years later, his family of musicians — not to mention his actual family — were under serious threat.
“My birthplace, Seoul, was a dangerous place,” says Kim, who first picked up the violin at age 5. “My mother and father pleaded with the Navy Admiral of Korea to protect the musicians of the symphony by providing refuge for them in Busan, just outside of Seoul. My mother’s best friend’s husband happened to be this Navy Admiral, and he offered them a hotel.”
Kim still recalls living all together in that complex, her family alongside all the orchestra musicians and choir members. Whether it was the close quarters or simply a profound love of music, John S. Kim and his orchestra never ceased their musical activities. They planned an outdoor concert, a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in Busan. And of all people and places, U.S. Vice President Alben W. Barkley (1949-1953) was in town.
He could not have expected what was to come.
‘He never forgot my father’
“Initially, Barkley laughed. ‘A classical music concert in this country? During the war?’ He must have had very low expectations,” Kim says. “But he was totally transformed by the end of the Beethoven that my father conducted.” According to the story Kim’s been told, “Barkley then contacted Washington and said, ‘I found this talented guy in Korea. We need to bring him to America, and sponsor him to study.’ And so the American government invited my father to come to this country.”
John S. Kim went on to study with Eugene Ormandy in Philadelphia and then with Leonard Bernstein in New York, where he was given a backstage pass to all concerts and rehearsals; he absorbed as much as he could. Masterclasses at Tanglewood followed. Then, from a large pool of students, John S. Kim and Herbert Blomstedt were selected to conduct a concert together.
More than 30 years later, in 1985, Blomstedt became the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, and realized who Kum Mo Kim was. “He never forgot my father,” says Kim. “He would always ask me, very warmly, about him — ‘How is your father doing? Please say hello for me!’”
Following the example of his teacher, Bernstein, John S. Kim created educational musical programs for the Korean public, and held competitions to raise the national level of playing of his homeland.
Meanwhile, his daughter grew up an American — she attended the University of Michigan, then Juilliard, before joining the San Francisco Symphony in 1975.
Returning to Korea
“My father really dedicated his life to the growth of classical music in his country. When people find out I’m his daughter, they’re amazed,” says Kim. “His name is legendary in Korea. He may not have had the most advanced conducting technique, but he loved music, and with his charisma and passion, he was somehow able to bring that out of his orchestra. Maybe that is what Vice President Barkley fell in love with.”
While interest in classical music is on a meteoric trajectory in Asia, the best talents are still trained in the West. Musical prodigies like Lang Lang, Yuja Wang, Han-na Chang, and Kyung Wha Chung — Kim’s best friend for over 50 years — all received North American training before becoming household names. However, Kim sees the tide turning.
“The technique is all there, but the feeling and understanding of music still needs to age. It will come,” she says. “Korea and China and their governments are very aggressive in their support of the art form. I think this is why we do well at competitions. America is lagging behind because it is not supporting the arts — it’s cutting music and arts from the schools. I’m afraid for what will happen in the future, but music will survive. There is nothing like it.”
In her four decades with the San Francisco Symphony, Kum Mo Kim has seen and heard it all — from the music directorships of Seiji Ozawa all the way through Michael Tilson Thomas, the stars of today and yesterday. Through it all, she’s developed a belief that music can overcome challenges that seem insurmountable.
“My father used to practice violin under a quilt because his parents didn’t want him to become a musician, but he did the best he could with his talent. And look at Korea now,” she says.
“My greatest blessing has been to play in this orchestra. I spent years just inches from the great artists coming through every week. I’ve considered retiring twice, but my job is just too good. And I’m just very happy that I now, finally, get to bring my own orchestra to my hometown.”
More information about the San Francisco Symphony’s current tour of Asia can be found here.