Conductor Kim proves she is the real deal in impressive Grant Park debut

Sat Jul 24, 2021 at 12:18 pm

By John von Rhein

Eun Sun Kim conducted the Grant Park Orchestra Friday night in her Chicago debut. Photo: Norman Timonera

It’s always dangerous, if not futile, to venture any definitive verdict as to the merits (or demerits) of a debut conductor at the Grant Park Music Festival, given the extreme variables involved in preparing and presenting symphonic music in the not-always-great outdoors of Millennium Park.

But the first appearance of Eun Sun Kim at the helm of the Grant Park Orchestra Friday evening at the Pritzker Pavilion was auspicious on several counts.

The concert marked the Chicago debut of the rising young South Korean conductor, whose appointment as music director of the San Francisco Opera (a tenure that begins next month) makes her one to watch. Her satisfyingly direct and unmannered account of the Dvořák Symphony No. 9 (“From the New World”) on Friday evening did so too.

Kim, who was born in Seoul, may be slight of figure, but she exerts the kind of no-nonsense command and confident musical authority on the podium that render physical stature irrelevant. Her stick technique and body language prize clear communication, which is to say that her exertions are directed towards illuminating the music rather than playing to the crowd. Her ear for detail is exemplary yet she never mistakes musical trees for forest: the long line is ever in her sights.

Without going to extremes of interpretation, she managed to make the lyrical abundance and sweeping symphonic drama of the Dvořák masterpiece feel fresh. She set and maintained judicious tempos and she was always natural in her treatment of tempo relations; such flexibility made for smooth transitions and allowed Dvořák’s phrases to expand and contract. Climaxes built firmly without feeling forced. She had the orchestra relaxing into the lyricism but also had them whipping up firmly dramatic climaxes.

Kim gave the Largo its due in terms of shapely phrasing and romantic feeling; the “Goin’ Home” English horn solo was beautifully taken, presumably by acting principal oboe Margaret Butler, who was uncredited in the program book. The Scherzo was properly gutsy, and the flutter-tonguing clarinets brought a touch of Bohemian color. Razor-sharp articulation helped focus the musical argument of the finale.

The Grant Parkers gave the guest maestra everything she asked for, while the electronic sound enhancement, on a warm and muggy night at the lakefront, gave back a reasonable if not particularly full sonic likeness of the orchestra.

Kim made an attentive accompanist in Shostakovich’s cheeky Piano Concerto No. 1 for piano, trumpet and strings—no mean feat, given the sometimes extreme tempos adopted by soloist Natasha Paremski. The Moscow-born Russian-American pianist is a familiar figure to Grant Park festival audiences and she came into her own with a sensitive account of the brooding waltz that is the slow movement.

Natasha Paremski performed Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 Friday night. Photo: Norman Timonera

But while Paremski clearly commands the technical chops, agility and power needed to nail the outer movements, the needed sly playfulness was conspicuously missing from her hell-for-leather sprint through the circus-galop finale. It was more palpable in the jaunty trumpet obbligato of Grant Park principal David Gordon.

Eyes fixed on the speed-demon soloist, Kim did her best to keep up. Despite this, the partnership felt marginally edgy in a couple of spots in the Allegro con fuoco; Saturday’s repeat performance should bring sharper rhythmic synchronicity.

Kim opened her program with a brief novelty, Texu Kim’s Blow, Fly, Pop!! In his program note, the South-Korea-born American composer (who serves as an assistant professor of music at San Diego University and is apparently no relation to the conductor) writes that his goal was to write music that is “FUN” (the capital letters are his) and that he took his inspiration from children’s games. The bright and bustling little post-minimalist piece is onomatopoeic: balloons pop, a gym ball is thumped, sheets of plastic are rustled and, at the end, the conductor and a percussionist blow bubbles from plastic bubble guns.

This critical killjoy found the score all gimmickry and no music—a series of cartoonish sound effects that might have worked as a fanfare at a children’s concert but whose inclusion in an otherwise serious festival program was a miscalculation. Blow, Fly, Pop!! way oversteps the line between fun and puerile. Conductor and orchestra wore their best poker faces, in the composer’s presence.

It’s good news that Eun Sun Kim will be returning to the city in March-April 2022, when she is scheduled to make her Lyric Opera debut conducting Puccini’s Tosca—the same work that will launch her inaugural term in San Francisco.   

The program will be repeated at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park.

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One Response to “Conductor Kim proves she is the real deal in impressive Grant Park debut”

  1. Posted Jul 27, 2021 at 9:33 am by Göran Tegnér


    Regarding the family name of Kim: it is an extremely common name in South Korea. Three contestants in the preliminary part of the Warsaw Chopin competition, that ended on the 23rd, were called Kim, so I looked it up. Some 16 million people, or about 20% of the population, have that family name.

    Best wishes

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