From Grapes to Complex Wine

David Kim, Rubendall Recital Hall

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson 

The anticipation was palpable as the musicians took their places onstage. Something big was missing, and the audience was curious to see how the performers would fill the void.

They’d come to experience an all-Mozart concert with no conductor at the helm—just as it was performed in Mozart’s day. Visiting artist David Kim faced the challenge of guiding the musicians from his seat in the violin section, moving the neck of his instrument in time while he performed the first-violin part.

The first American violinist to win a prize at Moscow’s International Tchaikovsky Competition, Kim has served as concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra since 1999. Last year, when his conductor fell ill just before a concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Kim guided the orchestra through the performance while performing his own part.

The concert was such a hit that he was asked to present another conductor-free program in January. Kim wanted to rehearse this unorthodox program with a college orchestra. He’d just returned from a residency at Dickinson, and he asked his contacts in the music department if they were game for a return visit.

“It would have been an honor to play with him as soloist. It’s doubly and triply the honor to play with him in partnership on the stage, unconducted,” said Associate Professor of Music Blanka Bednarz, who coordinated the visit. “If we compare it to the world of sports, it is like playing tennis with [Maria] Sharapova. We had to make it work.”

Although there was no time before the Philadelphia Orchestra concert when all parties were free, Kim still traveled to Dickinson one week after that event for an encore. Former music majors Leah Beshore ’03, Ben Vaughan ’06, and Aubrey Holmes ’11—who is pursuing a master’s degree in performance at Boston Conservatory—traveled back to their alma mater to take part.

On the night of the performance, the musicians were especially animated. “When there’s no conductor, the musicians move more than usual, because we need to keep that collective clock ticking,” explained Professor Emeritus Truman Bullard, who has played bassoon in the orchestra for 40 years. “It’s probably a lot of fun to watch.”

It’s also fun to perform, Kim added, given the orchestra’s tight-knit community.. “You have this wonderful community of musicians from different generations coming together to create music,” he said. “That’s very special. You have this great blend of grapes creating this complex wine.”

And for the students, the evening was also inspiring. “Working with [David Kim] is intense, because he demands the utmost from us,” said violinist Alexander Strachan ’13, who reports that his master class with Kim last year sparked immediate results. “He taught me how to share voice with the conductor, not just play notes on a page.” “He gives personal anecdotes and stories about the music,” said Brayden Downing ’13, a double major in economics and music. “You can turn those stories into music that’s better than anything you thought you could play.”

Published April 11, 2013