Sunwook Kim still seems surprised he won the 2006 Leeds International Piano Competition when he was just 18. He was the youngest winner in 40 years and the first from Asia. “It was all of sudden,” he said of the burst of attention that came with his victory. “I thought I wasn’t ready, actually.”
Knowing well that many competition winners are quickly forgotten, the Korean-born pianist limited his engagements during his 20s to a maximum of 40-50 concerts a year. He concentrated on expanding his repertoire and building his stage confidence. But 13 years later, Kim feels like he has arrived. “These days — I’m 31 now — and I feel I’m quite ready to do whatever I want,” he said. “I know what I’m doing compared to the age of 18 or 19. I’m happy about my stage and my status.”
His next milestone comes Oct. 10-12 when makes his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, performing two works for piano and orchestra by Felix Mendelssohn: the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, and Capriccio brillant. “I can’t really say how excited I am to be in Chicago,” he said. “I love the sound of the orchestra. They have such a fantastic, velvet sound from the strings, winds and brass. I’m really looking forward to this collaboration.”
These concerts will mark Kim’s first public performances anywhere of these two Mendelssohn works. “I’m not really shy to tell someone that this is my first time,” he said. “Many people say, ‘Well, maybe you need to take more time to play them often,’ but I don’t think so.” He regards his debut performances of these works as a “really great privilege” and a “thrilling moment” that he is eagerly anticipating. Because the works are new to his repertoire, he has no accumulated assumptions or habits. “I can explore as much as I can,” he said, “so it gives me a lot of freedom for the first time.”
When he was younger, Kim said, he was put off by the technical challenges he perceived in works by such composers as Brahms, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Then he played some of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, wordless pieces written between 1829 and 1845 and published in eight separate volumes, and became fascinated with the composer’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture.
He was soon captivated with Mendelssohn’s music and regretted having avoided it earlier in his career. “He is really, really a genius,” Kim said. “Maybe some people might say that his music has maybe fewer layers than other composers, which is not really true. His music is full of charm.” Kim describes Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 as “perfect chamber music,” because of the composer’s seamless integration of the piano and orchestra — something he hopes to bring out in his interpretation.
Born in Seoul in 1988, Kim began studying piano when he was 3. Western classical music had become very popular in Korea, he said, and it was a “huge fashion” at the time that every child should play at least one instrument. He also took violin lessons, something he gave up at age 13, because it was too difficult to continue on both instruments. Following wins in two other competitions in Germany and Switzerland, he grabbed the classical world’s attention with his victory at Leeds.
After graduating from the Korean National University of Arts in 2008, he moved to London, where he completed a master of arts degree in conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. He remained in London until last year when relocated to Berlin, a city that an increasing number of classical soloists make their home. “It’s a strange city,” he said. “The city itself is not really sophisticated, but classical music and all of the cultural environment is really wonderful. It gives a lot of freedom to the artist, and for someone like me, it is quite easy to get a visa. I’m really happy to live here.”
In 2008, Kim met Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits when the two performed together with the Seoul Philharmonic, and the two immediately clicked. Karabits, who serves as principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in England, invited Kim to solo with that ensemble the following year. He has played with the orchestra every year since and served as artist-in-residence there in 2014-15. “We have a quite close relationship with each other,” he said. “All the orchestra musicians, they know how I play, and I know how they play. And we are really friends — not just colleagues.”
His close ties with Karabits, who is serving as guest conductor for the CSO concerts Oct. 10-12, led to his invitation to appear with the orchestra. “As a soloist, it is quite random about having a good collaboration with a conductor,” Kim said. “Sometimes, the result is fantastic. Sometimes, the result becomes quite awkward, because if the conductor and soloist have a different conception about the repertoire, then it is hard to find a solution.”
His performances with Karabits definitely fall in the former category. When working with the conductor, he said everything feels natural and unforced. “We don’t really talk about the music with measurement and calculation,” he said. “We are looking for organic ways to play the music, and there is really a nice cooperation between us.”