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Ji Yong Kim Takes Charge

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(Sangwook Lee photo) “Life is a script of which you are the author.”

Swaggering into Burnes Hall last night with the confidence of a hellbent angel and the looks of a Rolex watch model, the Korean-born media-savvy phenom Ji Yong Kim, with Grammy appearances and Warner Classic contracts to his credit, klaxoned and cajoled his way through a well-received show. According to his website:

Ji Yong came to international attention before a televised audience of millions in the highly unconventional Android commercial that premiered during the 2016 Grammy Awards. His ‘monotune’ performance of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on dual pianos was so compelling that People Magazine declared Ji Yong “the real star of the Grammys.

His avowal Thursday evening of the importance of what he termed empathy perhaps explained the total absorption in Beethoven’s and Schumann’s keyboard dramas. A bit more attention to the sound of the piano in the room might have helped him extend his “empathy” to those in the nearer rows. (From Peter Fang’s gorgeous colorations [HERE] the night before we know this instrument can project refined tone.)

For the last regular recital in the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts Series (the festival closes with a Brahms concert by the Mercury Orchestra, at Jordan Hall on Saturday night), Kim began with a spacious account of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. In the moody opening Adagio one could ponder the well-dampered lunar nimbus. Beethoven’s pedal markings make sense on a piano of his day, but following them on an instrument with the sustaining power of a modern Steinway makes the movement (now considered likely funereal) sound Debussyean. Many suggestions of half-pedaling, or even resorting to the sostenuto, have been bruited, and as Kim lives with this favorite, he will likely consider them. He certainly made common cause with Beethoven’s tragic searching, and no complaints from this writer for the sprightly Allegretto, either: it went by light, lively, and quick. The Presto on the other hand came across like a ripped six-pack torso, no quarter asked or given. We don’t demand personal imprint on a familiar object like the Moonlight from a 20-something; his infectious joy of discovery and the power of his delivery and concentration sufficed.

The 16-variation ammunition magazine of the Eroica Variations, published a year after the Moonlight (in 1802, the composer early 30s), is loaded with stabbing sforzandi alternating with vaporous pianissimos, so listeners need never wait long for a mood change. Beethoven may have heard his first ffff when Kim’s fate-laden opening chord wakened him from the dead. Did the piano and the ears protest a bit? Unequivocally yes. Tonal beauty seemed to interest this player not as much as momentum, muscle, bravura sweep, and yes, a kind of empathy. If Kim reveled a bit much in the fast and loud practice-room style, he could nevertheless relax into reveries. Just maybe, at times, this perfectly matched the titanic thundering and existential questioning of the great composer.

Schumann’s Florestan and Eusebius, the famous mythical embodiments of his bipolarity, serve as the mood-disordered tour guides for the 1833 Carnaval. Hormones and hammers pump as the 20 delicious and inventive episodes begin, like the Eroica Variations, with a chord, banged in this case again as loudly as possible. Thereafter, the avid Kim showed tremendous ability to change course and speed, morphing with Carnaval’s various auguries of Schumann’s mental disintegration; one could hear swarming diabolical spirochetes warring with calming divine interveners. Kim mowed down all the technical challenges.

The immediate standing O occasioned an interpretation of the Schumann-Liszt Widmung sans singing tone. The climax needs to be earned through beautiful, delicate, soft stuff, and refined delineation of the singer in high and low registers. Kim relied on the una corda rather than just fingers to curb his volume in a manner that produces a twanginess. He might wish to work more on the quieter bel canto realms at speed. Add some jeu perle to your interpretative armament, dude, and don’t be afraid to relax more.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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