Sunwook Kim
© Nick Cary | Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Young pianist Sunwook Kim has a long history with the Philharmonia Orchestra, having performed with them on a number of occasions since 2009. But next week’s concert with the orchestra bears a special significance: marking the close of Korea/UK 2017-18, a season of performing and visual arts dedicated to strengthening cultural relationships between the two countries, it sees him join his countrywoman Han-Na Chang for a Romantic-based programme, with Grieg’s well-loved Piano Concerto at its core. Though this will be his first time performing with Chang, it’s a collaboration that one could say has been a long time coming: “I have known of her since my childhood and I like her artistry. I’m very much looking forward to working with her.”

BT: You started winning competitions early on, becoming the youngest Leeds Piano Competition winner in 40 years. After winning these contests at such an early age, did you find that there were big expectations to live up to?

SK: Oh yes. But the good thing about winning the competition was that I had many great opportunities to introduce myself and share my music with the world. Although a competition cannot prove that artists are true musicians or professionals, they are really helpful for a younger generation of musicians to build up their experience and careers. However, those who take part should know that every three to four years there is a new winner and they are given the same opportunities you have already received.

Some believe that marking out a musician for greatness at a young age is not helpful, since one needs life experience to become a great artist. Having been marked out for success at an early age yourself, what’s your view on this?

There is no shortcut to becoming a mature artist. I have never thought of myself as a successful musician – I just constantly try to practice every day and to get a new inspiration from the music of all the greatest composers.

There are many great classical musicians from South Korea, and classical music seems to be an important part of schoolchildren’s education there. Where do you think this appetite for and interest in Western classical music comes from?

Sunwook Kim
© Marco Borggreve

Compared to other countries, it hasn’t been long since classical music was introduced to Korea. Many of our teachers went abroad (to the USA and Europe) to study music in the 1970s and 1980s and passed it on to my generation. I was fortunate that there were many music institutes around in the early 1990s, and it was such a positive environment that many of my school friends learned to play musical instruments and were able to compete well. Koreans love music and know how to express it.

Even though you’ve been living in London since 2008, do you feel that your Korean background has continued to influence how you approach music?

Not at all. Music is the universal language. It doesn’t matter where you come from or where you live.

The pianist and conductor Myung-Whun Chung is someone whom you’ve looked up to. Was the fact that he’s a Korean person, famous in the world of classical music, something that was inspiring for you?

He has been my idol since I was child. I always went to his concerts and he was my role model. To give you a sense of how much I like him: in 1998, there was an online auction (by UNICEF) in Korea. There was a conducting baton on the list, which Chung had used. It was a lot of money for a 10-year-old boy, but I missed school and ended up buying it! He is truly a great musician in our time.

Similarly you’ve championed Unsuk Chin’s music and have frequently performed her Piano Concerto. Was it important for you to be associated with a composer of Korean heritage, or was it a purely musical choice?

It was a purely musical choice. Of course, it is very convenient to communicate with her in our native Korean language! I am always interested in interacting with living composers, because it is impossible to ask any questions of the composers of the past. It is such a pure joy to be able to converse with her about her music.

Among other places across the world, you perform regularly in Korea. What keeps you going back there? Do you see any differences in how classical music is received there and in the West – how audiences react, for example?

It is true that Korean audiences are special. They are really enthusiastic and passionate about the artists, and they listen with great concentration.

What do you think we in the West can learn from Korea, both in terms of classical music culture and otherwise?

Koreans are generally very diligent. The enthusiasm for education and study is extremely high – more than 80% of the population have graduated from university. Most music students start to learn the instrument at a very young age and have excellent skills. They are also honest with their feelings. This is not always good but I believe this is essential condition for a musician.

Sunwook Kim
© Nick Cary | Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

You usually appear to favour Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann in your concerts. Was there something in particular that made you choose the Grieg concerto for your upcoming Philharmonia concert?

I think the Grieg concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 5 match perfectly. Of course there are various concepts when you make a programme, but this concert will certainly be a Romantic evening.

What would you want to get across to people who maybe don’t know this concerto, before they hear it for the first time?

The Grieg Piano Concerto is one of the most beautiful pieces ever written, and it will make you recollect the beautiful moments of your life.

You’ve said you’ve practiced things like calligraphy, Taekwondo and painting. Do you still have time for activities like these, and if so do they in any way inform how you play music?

I am a very curious person and I have been interested in various things – architecture, tailoring, craftsmanship, sport and calligraphy. But I’m not doing this stuff actively because I almost spend my whole day with music. I love the music the most!

You’ve performed with the Philharmonia many times in the past. What do you think are the orchestra’s unique characteristics, and what are you looking forward to about playing with them again?

The Philharmonia Orchestra is very unique – like a chameleon. They deliver the best results from each musicians’ distinctive musicianship. It’s a really great pleasure to work with them again.


Find out more about the concert. 

This article was sponsored by Korean Cultural Centre UK.