New conductor leads first orchestra concert of the year

The Occidental Symphony Orchestra in Thorne Hall at Occidental College in LA, Oct. 10, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

Chris Kim, director of instrumental activities and conductor of Occidental’s Symphony Orchestra, conducted the orchestra’s first concert of the academic year Oct. 10 in Thorne Hall for students, family and community members. Kim started in his role Aug. 15, after being selected through a search process Spring 2019. The orchestra performed four pieces whose swings in dynamics and rhythmic energy engaged the audience that partially filled Thorne Hall. Kim conducted the orchestra of over 30 students and a few teaching artists in performing pieces by both historic and contemporary composers.

The orchestra opened the concert with Mozart’s “Overture to Idomeneo, K. 366.” Kim said that, since the piece is in D major, it is well suited to the string section. He also said one of the benefits of playing historical pieces is that it builds unique human connections across time.

“One of my students commented, ‘I think orchestra is one of those things where I imagine 100 years ago somebody who was playing violin probably did it about the way I’m doing it now,’” Kim said. “That’s really an amazing way to have an insight into what another human being thought and felt.”

The second piece the orchestra performed was a contemporary suite titled “Little Bluestem,” which was written by contemporary composer Forrest Pierce. Kim said he has wanted to perform this piece since he met Pierce at a festival almost 15 years ago and thinks it is also important to support contemporary composers, like Pierce, who are writing in unique ways.

The third piece was Jean Sibelius’s suite “Pelléas et Mélisande, Op. 46.” The suite has nine movements that are each very distinct, and Kim said the orchestra had to quickly shift between each movement. According to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra website, a movement is an independent component of a larger symphony or concerto. The suite has surprising moments of intense percussion and dynamic rhythms. Kim said he has to communicate these changes nonverbally.

“I’m the only person on stage that’s not making any sound, but somehow I have to communicate the knowledge of the score,” Kim said. “I have to know what’s on the page and then I have to translate it to gesture.”

Michael Kwan (senior), the Concert Master of the Occidental Symphony Orchestra, at the orchestra concert in Thorne Hall at Occidental College in LA, Oct. 10, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

The orchestra finished their concert with Manuel De Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance from ‘El Amor Brujo.’”

Kim attended Northwestern University for his undergraduate degree in oboe and then the University of Michigan for his graduate degree. He said at those schools usually only music majors can participate in the top orchestra, which is not the case at Occidental.

“There’s just a handful of students who are music majors, but the rest are from every major around the college. There’s something really wonderful about students who are pursuing music not because it’s their ticket into college, but because they really love it,” Kim said. “I realized, okay, that’s my role as a teacher: to be the person who’s not going to ignore somebody because they’re a liberal arts major, rather than a music performance major.”

Hyun Gill (sophomore), viola player for Occidental’s Symphony Orchestra, said she was part of the ensemble that played for and met with candidates during the search process last year.

“I met him there and, out of all the other candidates, he was special,” Gill said. “Within the 45 minutes, he made us sound good and there was no sugarcoating.”

Lennon Kuzniar (first year) plays the cello at the orchestra concert in Thorne Hall at Occidental College in LA, Oct. 10, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

Last year, people wanted to leave as soon as rehearsal was over, according to Gill. Now, Gill said more people are willing to help clean up and there is a greater sense of community in the orchestra.

“Everybody still — even though they have work — they help with putting everything away,” Gill said. “I think that’s beautiful.”

Michael Kwan (senior), violin player and concertmaster of the orchestra, said he has noticed distinct aspects of Kim’s conducting style.

“He’s exercising us more with the dynamics,” Kwan said. “He has his method that’s very efficient in getting us, as college-level musicians, to do whatever is best to improve ourselves.”

Kwan said he thinks Kim’s determination to follow the rehearsal schedule helped make the concert possible — it was the earliest the orchestra has hosted a concert during his time at Occidental.

Before starting at Occidental this summer, Kim worked as the Director of Orchestras at Cornell University for 16 years. Two years ago, Kim’s wife started working at University of California Los Angeles, and he tried commuting between New York and California.

“It was difficult leaving Cornell, but we decided it was much more important to be together as a family,” Kim said.

Kim said he was inspired to teach music partially because of the teachers he encountered throughout his life.

“I encountered these teachers who had this ability to zoom through time and become young again right in front of my eyes as they started to talk about their passion, which was music,” Kim said.

Kim said he began meeting with David Kasunic, chair of the music department, prior to his official start date in August because there were many aspects of the music department — such as organizing the orchestra’s library and instrument storage spaces — that needed caretaking. He said he started planning the program for the concert over the summer. After the semester started, Kim found three local residents to fill vacant positions in the brass section.

“I got the music ready and then no brass players showed up,” Kim said. “I had to kind of scrap the programs that we had, and then I went in search of a repertoire that had limited role in brass, but we found three community members. So, we found a trumpet player in the community and we found a horn player in the community.”

Gill said some sections of the pieces were challenging for the orchestra and that, during their second rehearsal for the concert, Kim told the orchestra a story about when he was practicing a difficult piece.

“He kind of gave up but then this other conductor came and worked on that short fragment that they were struggling with for 15 minutes,” Gill said. “[Kim] told us that story about his faults and he was like, ‘I’m never going to give up on you guys.’”