Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Jonah Kim: An “Emerging Artist” who has Already Emerged?

This afternoon’s Noontime Concerts (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) recital at Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral was the annual program supported by the Helen von Ammon Fund for Emerging Artists. The artist for this year was cellist Jonah Kim, but a review of his extensive biographical statement on the program sheet suggested that he has been getting a generous amount of exposure since his solo debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2003 under the baton of Wolfgang Sawallisch. For that matter his appearances and recordings seem to be covering the pop world (with the diverse likes of Mariah Carey, Vic Damone, and Kenny Rogers) as well as the classics.

Regardless of how far Kim may have already progressed, his appearance at Noontime Concerts was definitely a welcome one. Indeed, he managed to exceed the usual “lunch break duration” of 45 minutes by over a quarter of an hour; but very few people in the audience seemed inclined to get up and leave early. They had good reason to stay.

Kim prepared a program of two sonatas in the key of G minor. For those interested in the affective implications of key choice, G minor was a particular favorite of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when he wanted intense rhetoric; and Christian Schubart’s aesthetic treatise classified G minor as the key of “Discontent, uneasiness, worry about a failed scheme; bad-tempered gnashing of teeth; in a word: resentment and dislike.” The sonatas selected for performance were the second of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 5 sonatas and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Opus 19 sonatas, both thoroughly admirable successors to Mozart’s G minor compositions, if not to Schubart’s descriptive terminology.

Where the Beethoven sonata is concerned, it is probably necessary to correct an error on the program sheet, which listed the sonata as having three movements. There are only two; but the Allegro molto più tosto presto (which migrates from G minor to G major) is preceded by a significantly lengthy Adagio sostenuto e espressivo. Indeed, both of the Opus 5 sonatas have this structure. They were written in 1796; but their seriously prolonged introductory sections anticipate the Opus 92 (seventh) symphony in A major, which Beethoven completed in 1812. Once the first movement makes the move to G major, the second movement, an Allegro Rondo stays there for a duration that is more in keeping with eighteenth-century tradition.

Regardless of what the program sheet said, Kim was adept in providing the listener with a sense of the overall architecture, establishing an almost spooky sense of suspense before launching into the Allegro molto section of the first movement. Similarly, he seemed to grasp that the Rondo was there to reassure the listener with something a bit more familiar. At the lower levels of detail, Kim’s chemistry with piano accompanist Miles Graber was about as strong as one could expect. Technically, his phrasing was right on the money. His sense of pitch was almost as secure, but it seemed as if he was relying a bit more heavily on portamento than most cellists do when they are playing Beethoven.

The Rachmaninoff sonata, on the other hand, was written on a much broader scale. Those who listen to a lot of Rachmaninoff may have felt some sense of familiarity, even if this was their “first contact” with Opus 19. The sonata was given its first performance on December 2, 1901, only a little less than a month after the premiere of the Opus 18 (second) piano concerto in C minor, which took place on November 9. Anyone who thinks (s)he is hearing a few familiar tropes from Opus 18 during a performance of Opus 19 is not mistaken.

Kim’s command of Rachmaninoff was as solid as his command of Beethoven. However, at the same time, he clearly appreciated that the Rachmaninoff sonata required an entirely different rhetorical stance than that taken for Beethoven. Indeed, in the Rachmaninoff context, Kim’s use of portamento felt less out of place, although there was still a general sense that he was overdoing it.

On the basis of these two performances, it would be reasonable to assume that Kim’s emergence is well under way. He clearly has a lot of solid technique in his toolkit; and his technique is reinforced with well-considered judgement on the rhetorical stance to take. Nevertheless, there are still some rough edges, particularly where pitch is concerned; so it would be unfair to all involved to claim that Kim has “arrived.” However, he is definitely on the right track; and, if all goes well in the diligence he applies to his work, his “arrival” may be imminent!

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