It all began like a normal concert. The Chamber Music Society of Minnesota (CMSM) has been presenting concerts for some 20 years, and this one, on an unusually warm Sunday afternoon in October, would be like many others. Mind you, I was particularly interested in the special guest performer, violist Nobuko Imai, a musician I have long admired.
CMSM's Artistic Director is violinist Young-Nam Kim, an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Music, and a performer, adjudicator and administrator. I met him when he very kindly facilitated an interview for me (for MPR's Learning to Listen) with Nobuko Imai. At that point, I didn't know much about Mr. Kim at all but that was soon to change.
The concert program was a sort of a "viola sandwich," with a Suite for Solo Viola by Yoshiro Irino in between string quintets by Mozart and Mendelssohn. The quintets featured two violas, with Miss Imai in the ensemble, along with violist Sally Chisholm, cellist James Jacobson and violinists Young-Nam and Ariana Kim. Ariana, Young-Nam's daughter, is professor of Violin at Cornell University and a member of The Knights, an orchestral collective whose recordings have been featured in classical music broadcasts on MPR and on YourClassical.
At the point that Nobuko Imai ought to have taken to the stage for the solo viola suite, Ariana stepped to the microphone and explained that there was a change of program. A birthday celebration had been organized in Young-Nam's honor, with a few surprises prepared. There followed a short ceremony involving what appeared to be an oriental piñata though instead of hitting it with a stick, Young-Nam pulled a string, and the two halves of a sphere opened to release streamers and a kind of a scroll.
At that point, I believe Young-Nam assumed the surprise was over, and he took his seat in the audience. Little did he (or we, for that matter) know that the tributes were just beginning. Ariana, I have since learned, was the mastermind and principal organizer of the event which, like a flower opening, gradually revealed the depth and breadth of Young-Nam Kim's presence in the musical life of Minnesota and beyond. Each item in a carefully, gracefully presented program spoke in turn of the regard that musicians composers in particular have for Young-Nam and the work he has consistently, quietly and effectively done.
The program began with a Beethoven Trio arranged for three violas, performed by Daniel Kim, Nobuko Imai and Sally Chisholm. Daniel Kim is Young-Nam's son, a violist and teacher who flew in secretly to take part in his father's tribute. There followed four world-premiere performances of works specially commissioned for the tribute:
- John Harbison: "Aria: N.A." for solo violin
- Steve Heitzeg: "Stone (Save the Boundary Waters)" for solo violin
- Peter Child: "Birthday Card for YNK" for violin and viola
- Stanislaw Skrowaczewski: "To Young-Nam" for violin and viola
And like the best celebrations, there was wit as well as artistry: Near the end of the Skrowaczewski piece, the musical phrase "happy birthday to you" was shared between the two instruments and the two performers who so clearly are a product of their father's legacy of musical achievement. Maestro Skrowaczewski attended the concert, another reminder of the depth and breadth of the guest of honor's associations.
As a finale to the tribute, the "Young-Nam Kim Secret Surprise Orchestra," assembled from past and present students of Young-Nam Kim, played the "Allegretto" from Mozart's final string quartet, K. 590.
"Young Nam at 70" (and, meeting him, you would not believe Young Nam was anything like that age) was a delightfully and thoughtfully executed surprise; the best kind of surprise, for the best kind of subject: one who clearly does not, not in a million years, believe that he deserves any kind of fuss to be made. In the audience, seeing it all happen, if we didn't understand to begin with, we certainly ended up with a clear sense of the importance of what Young-Nam Kim has achieved through his teaching, his advocacy of live music-making, his promotion of opportunities for young people to be taught and inspired, and his own dedication to the art and craft of music.
There was an atmosphere of celebration and appreciation during the tribute that is hard to convey in words. Even Ariana and Daniel, eloquent musicians and clearly devoted to their father, did not speak their admiration as much as perform it. It was an essentially musical event but words did play a part too. Fred Harris, author of the definitive biography of Maestro Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Seeking the Infinite, and now filmmaker on the same subject, wrote a poem in tribute to Young-Nam Kim. This is how he put it:
Aria for Young-Nam
For Papa Kim on his 70th Birthday
Already from the womb
seared his soul
initiated by his bow
generations of students,
Korea, Tanglewood, Minnesota,
kind sanctuaries that informed,
breathed, and shed light
Gestures of humbleness
Acts of integrity
Waves of enthusiasm
for the music
for its creators, re-creators
for the exaltedness of art
a constant search for beauty
undeterred by life's hindrances and disenchantments
Arias of Ariana,
Ellen, Nathan, Daniel
His spirit resting in their hearts
Peering into pasts, dreaming of futures
A glint of the eye
a knowing laugh
an easy smile
A soul that feels
music's veiled mysteries
marks this moment
An amber leaf
sings an everlasting note
Happy Birthday dear friend,