Facing the music: Sunwook Kim – The Guardian

What’s been your most memorable live music experience as an audience member?

There have been two unforgettable concerts for me. The first was at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2006. Alfred Brendel gave a recital whose programme included Schubert’s piano sonata D894. I was not a big fan of Brendel at the time but when he played this sonata, it sounded so miraculous and it just blew my mind. It was a very special experience and since then I have been an enthusiastic follower of his interpretations. The second concert was in Paris where Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra played Mahler’s 9th Symphony. I was absolutely speechless from the beginning to the very end.

Vinyl or digital?

Digital is very convenient if you want to listen to music while travelling, but for me it can’t provide the satisfaction of touching and playing physical CDs or LPs.

What was the first record you bought?

Herbert von Karajan’s recording of Beethoven 5th Symphony.

… and the last?

Currently I am very much into Richard Strauss’ music, particularly Also Sprach Zarathustra, Alpine Symphony, Der Rosenkavalier and Salome. His music is vivid but somewhat vague, very complex but approachable, imaginative and yet realistic.

What’s your musical guilty pleasure?

I sometimes read books or magazines while playing and trying to memorise a score. It may sound ridiculous, but sometimes it works well as it helps me become unconscious of what notes my fingers are playing. On a stage, you need to overcome anxiety about memory slips and control yourself to a very high level. Even if your brain suddenly forgets what notes come next, your fingers will automatically find the right place.

If you had time learn a new instrument, what would it be?

I studied the violin from the age of six until 13 but stopped learning to concentrate on the piano. If I had a chance to learn a new instrument, it would be either clarinet or percussion. I just love the sound of the clarinet, and the hundreds of different percussion instruments fascinate me.

Did you ever consider a career outside of music? Doing what?

A bespoke tailor or shoemaker. I am always hugely attracted by artisans and their craftsmanship and the amount of time and effort that’s put into creating handmade products.

If you had to pick one work to introduce someone to classical music, what would it be?

Anything by Johann Sebastian Bach. He was a genius without whom pop or rock music today wouldn’t exist.

What is the most unusual place you’ve performed in?

Château de Clos Vougeot in Burgundy, France. This place has a great history and was a haven for me as I like Burgundy wine. They host festivals for classical music and wine once a year – not to be missed by people who love both!

We’re giving you a time machine: what period, or moment in musical history, would you travel to and why?

I recently came across a painting by Josef Danhauser called Franz Liszt Improvising at the Piano (1840) and it was fascinating to find Liszt, Berlioz, Paganini, Rossini, Countess Marie d’Agoult, and George Sand all in one place at the same time. I would travel to this scene and listen to their chats and share their stories.

What – in your opinion – is the best new piece written in the past 50 years?

Unsuk Chin’s Violin Concerto and her six Piano etudes. I have played her piano concerto several times – her music is truly remarkable and I believe that it will endure for many centuries.

Imagine you’re a festival director. What would you programme – or commission – for your opening event?

I would offer commissions to as many contemporary composers as possible. Music in the 21st century must move forward and we should aim for a balance between the music of the past and the present. These are resources to future generations.

Sunwook Kim’s album of Beethoven Piano Sonatas is out now on Accentus Music. He performs Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on 20 April 2017.

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