BWW Interview: Michael Jinsoo Lim Dances Over the Strings
From soloist to chamber player to concertmaster of the "best ballet band in America," award-winning violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim's capable hands have serenaded music lovers in concerts in the top halls of the US, in recordings for well-known labels, and even on NPR.
A co-founding member of the Corigliano Quartet and artistic director and violinist of the Seattle-based ensemble Frequency, the ever-versatile Lim recently premiered a violin concerto written for him by Andrew Waggoner and appeared as a theater artist in Tempo of Recollection, a show about composer Erwin Schulhoff, directed by Nick Schwartz-Hall.
Few Ballet orchestra concertmasters have had as many major solo opportunities as Lim. In Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker, Lim grabbed audience attention with a solo of concerto-like proportions and also has performed Stravinsky's hugely demanding Violin Concerto with the company. In PNB's upcoming Pictures at an Exhibition, opening June 2, 2107 (https://www.pnb.org/season/16-17/exhibition/), Lim performs the equally challenging Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 in the ballet Opus 19/The Dreamer, choreographed by Jerome Robbins and staged by PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal.
EM: Michael, you studied at Indiana University with iconic violinist and pedagogue Josef Gingold. What was that experience like?
MJL: Studying with Josef Gingold was one of the great joys and honors of my life. Every time I pick up my violin I think about him. He was an amazing violinist, with the most beautiful sound you can imagine. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the instrument, and a kind and generous way of imparting his wisdom to his students. On top of that, he was one of the nicest, most genuine people you would ever hope to know in life.
Gingold had wonderful stories about his experiences with legendary artists like Toscanini, Heifetz, Kreisler, and Ysaÿe, whom he studied with. He loved being a violinist, and he loved teaching the violin. I've often said that the single greatest thing that I got from Mr. Gingold was the love of the violin. Before I studied with him, I didn't have much of a relationship with the instrument; playing the violin was something that I did and was good at. After studying with Gingold, I loved the violin and couldn't live without it.
EM: High praise indeed for a great master. You have become known as a champion of contemporary music. When and how did you first become involved with new music?
MJL: When I was in college. At that time, it made you a bit of an outsider, which I liked. I started to really like the experience of playing pieces no one had ever played before. With new music, you can really create your own path. Instead of following a traditional way of playing a piece, you can start a new tradition that others who follow can embrace or reject.
Toward the end of my studies at Indiana, my wife (violist Melia Watras) and I founded the Corigliano Quartet, to play one concert for a contemporary music festival at Indiana. We were asked to play John Corigliano's then newly-composed String Quartet, which won a Pulitzer Prize. After the concert, John took us out to dinner and told us how impressed he was with the way we played his piece. He was surprised we were not an established group; that we had just formed for this concert with no intention of continuing on. John encouraged us to try to make it as a string quartet. We took the plunge, and named ourselves in his honor.
That was 20 years ago. Over the last two decades, with the quartet, and as a soloist and chamber musician, I've had the pleasure of working with numerous composers, commissioning new works and recording quite a bit. The quartet made new music a big part of its repertoire, for which we were awarded an ASCAP/CMA Award for Adventurous Programming. Don't get me wrong, I love the standard repertoire; but I strongly believe we need to keep Classical music alive and moving forward by playing works that are being created today.
EM: Tell us about your ensemble, Frequency.
MJL: Frequency is comprised of violist Melia Watras, cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir and myself. In addition to being a trio, we are what I like to call a modular chamber music group: breaking into other formations and playing with distinguished guests to present programs with a variety of styles and instrumentation. We play all kinds of music, from Bach to Berio and beyond.
We formed in 2016, and just completed our first season together. I feel fortunate to get to work with Melia and Sæunn; they are such incredibly creative and wonderful musicians, and two of my favorite people in the world! We're really excited about next season, as we have a lot of interesting music on tap.
EM: How did you first become interested in playing for PNB?
MJL: Melia and I moved to Seattle in 2004. She was hired as the new viola professor at the University of Washington. I had started a job in NYC, playing in the first violin section of the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra, and for a few years split time between New York and Seattle. I remember attending a performance of PNB in 2005, when Peter Boal had just become artistic director. Melia and I used to watch Peter dance when he was at NYCB, and were excited that he was hired at PNB. The performance was wonderful; I loved hearing the orchestra, and I thought at the time, if there was one job that I really wanted in Seattle, it would be concertmaster for PNB. Of course, you never know if a job like that will open up for many, many years. I was fortunate that 4 years later PNB was looking for a new concertmaster. It really is a dream job for me. I love working with amazing people like music director Emil de Cou and our fantastic orchestra, and getting to collaborate with dancers, choreographers, composers and ballet masters.
EM: I remember feeling the same when I played for ABT. How would you describe the difference between performing a solo piece with orchestra on stage as opposed to in the pit?
MJL: I find playing in the pit more challenging. There is certainly more physical discomfort to deal with: less room to operate in and less lighting! It can also be difficult to judge your own sound and how it is carrying in the hall. But you learn to block out the physical things, and begin to develop a sense of how to translate your sound from the pit to the audience.
I'd say the biggest difference when playing a concerto for ballet is that you have to be very flexible with tempos. The tempo that sounds the best doesn't always look the best. There are also slight changes from night to night, depending on who is dancing. On the other hand, there is something about performing music when you are not visible to the audience. Everything you are producing is with sound, with no visual elements from the musician to communicate to the audience. In a way, it's a very pure way of making music.
EM: Aside from performing the Prokofiev Concerto No. 1 with PNB next month, what is coming up for you in the near future?
MJL: Next season at PNB will include Swan Lake, with all of those beautiful concertmaster solos that Tchaikovsky wrote. I'll also play week two of the run of Red Angels, which is danced to a solo work for 5-string electric violin by composer Richard Einhorn. After the season ends in June 2018, the company is off to Paris for a tour, and I'll get another opportunity to play the Prokofiev Concerto there.
Of course, lots of fun stuff coming up with Frequency, and next season in Seattle I'll perform music by UW composers Melia Watras and Richard Karpen, and the Beethoven Triple Concerto with cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, pianist Cristina Valdés, and the UW Symphony conducted by David Rahbee. I'm also excited about recording the world premiere of Andrew Waggoner's Violin Concerto, with multiple Grammy-winning producer Judith Sherman. It should be a busy and fun year!
EM: Sounds fantastic. Thanks so much, and Toi, Toi, for the Prokofiev!
PNB's Pictures at an Exhibition will be performed at McCaw Hall Jun. 2-11 (https://www.pnb.org/season/16-17/exhibition/).
Photo credits: Michelle Smith-Lewis, Angela Sterling, Erin Baiano