Meet the Musician: Violinist Michelle Kim

Photography by Danielle Cho

Where did you grow up and what made you choose violin? 

I was born in Seoul, South Korea and moved to Los Angeles when I was 10. My mom grew up listening to classical music and started me on piano lessons when I was five. After a few months, she switched me to violin so I could play duets with my older sister who had already been playing the piano for a year.

Where did you get your musical training?  When did you know you wanted to be a professional musician?

I didn’t take a straight path to becoming a professional musician. Growing up in LA, I took lessons with Laura Schmieder at Colburn School and played for the Colburn Chamber Orchestra every Saturday. But by my junior year in high school, my family decided that I should give up the violin to prepare for college and a traditional career.

Even though I hadn’t played for two years, I still brought my violin to UC Berkeley. I knew that music could open many doors in life, including traveling to performances, meeting people, learning different cultures and building lasting friendships.

I got a degree in statistics while playing in the University Symphony for four years.   I also gave recitals on and off campus with faculty members and fellow student musicians, and was a soloist with the orchestra for two separate performances after twice winning the orchestra’s concerto competition.

Through David Milnes, the Music Department Director and University Symphony Conductor, the University Music Department paid for my lessons with Zoya Leybin, a San Francisco Symphony member and a faculty of the SF Conservatory.  In the beginning of my senior year, just as I was putting my violin away for good to focus on finishing school and looking for a job, David convinced me that I had a future in music and encouraged me to follow my passion. We discussed career options in music and, on that day, I decided to become a professional musician! 

I spent the next several months applying to conservatories and decided to get a Master’s Degree in Music at Manhattan School of Music to study with Laurie Carney, a founding member of the American String Quartet. The summer after I graduated from MSM, I was very lucky to win a position in the first violin section in the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra! 

Could you name any favorite artists you’ve worked with or productions you’ve performed in since being in the orchestra?

I am extremely fortunate to have worked with Placido Domingo at the Washington National Opera.  He has brought so much passion and beauty to our music.  He was – and still is -- a great inspiration in my career and in my life. 

with Maestro Domingo at intermission

I enjoy working on the standard opera and ballet repertoire and also love playing new music.  I was especially moved by playing The Little Mermaid ballet by John Neumeier and Lera Auerbach this past season. And I found Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking compelling and satisfying.  I also saw Miami Music Festival’s performance of this opera this past summer.   

Do you perform outside of the Kennedy Center?

Quite often.  Four years ago, I started to play the electric violin and perform different genres of music such as rock, crossover, EDM and adult contemporary.  I also do some composing/arranging/covering. 

Playing various types of music and in different Kennedy Center productions (Kennedy Center Honors, gala concerts, etc.) -- and working with talented orchestra colleagues -- inspired me to find my own sound. 

Some of my cool electric violin gigs include performing at the Peace Institute for then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Korean National Defense Minister Han Min-Koo, at the IMF Annual Meetings in DC, and at the National Association of Health Underwriters Capitol Conference.

Performing in a recital at the In Spiritum Music Festival in Portugal

Performing for the IMF Annual Meetings

Performing at the MGM National Harbor Grand Opening private event, Dec 2016

This is a short demo/music video of my performance at the Italian Embassy in DC for Becky’s Fund Walk This Way fundraising fashion show. 

Recently, I performed my own composition Con Spero at the United Nations Headquarters in New York celebrating the UN General Assembly’s passing of the new International Name Day for Micro, Small, and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

Michelle performing her composition Con Spero at the UN Headquarters in NY

What has been the most inspiring concert experience since being in the KCOHO?

The most inspiring concert I’ve played at the Kennedy Center was in 2012 with visiting musicians from Tunisia to commemorate the Jasmine Revolution in their country.  It was a side-by-side concert with Kennedy Center orchestra musicians as we all performed Hannibal Barca, a symphony written by a Tunisian composer.  I started a humanitarian organization, Culture Saves, after seeing and feeling this music bring hope and inspiration to the audience and to the musicians.  Culture Saves connects artists from around the globe and enables them to find commonalities in different cultures, and to help restore hope and promote peace in areas of conflict through the arts.

            with Tunisian Violist, Mourad Frini

Do you have any hobbies outside of the orchestra?

I picked up squash (the game and not the fruit!) several years ago at my gym in DC. I’ve participated in amateur squash tournaments and camps in the DC area, San Francisco, Rye (New York), Baltimore and France.  And I like to prepare things that I enjoy eating – such as simple Italian dishes, sushi and Korean food.  I also love movies, especially sci-fi and independent films. And I’m thinking seriously of getting a dog…    

                playing in a squash tournament

In the recent past, you severely injured your hand. What was it like coming back from an injury like that, and how has it changed your playing? Any advice to other musicians recovering from injuries that require time off their instrument?

Two years ago, I broke my left (fingerboard) hand in a car accident. I had two surgeries during the following year and months of occupational therapy.  A serious hand injury like this can often end a violinist’s career.  I was broken physically and mentally and spent months moping around.  Eventually, I accepted the fact that it would take time before I could play again (if at all!). So I focused on things I couldn’t do before when I was working as a full-time violinist.  When you’re displaced from your passion and your career, it’s important to put your energy into other interests that you weren’t before able to fully develop. With this philosophy and this attitude, I organized events for Culture Saves with visiting artists from around the globe. I also participated in other volunteer projects in the Washington area.  When my hand finally healed and regained its strength and motion, I was able to return to my career as a performer… with a new perspective and appreciation for my work.  

What do you most look forward to playing this season?

I look forward to working with our Music Director Philippe Auguin in Don Carlo later this season.  Maestro Auguin always brings a robust but sensitive, and an elegant but modern, interpretation to every piece of music. 

                        with Maestro Auguin

And a week from today (Monday, September 25), I’ll be performing the Debussy Trio on the Millennium Stage with two gifted musicians - KCOHO cellist Igor Zubkovsky and pianist Grace Eun Hae Kim. 

In November, Washington National Opera is performing Handel’s baroque opera Alcina for the first time.  Although Handel wrote over 40 operas, the last one that WNO performed was Tamerlano in 2008 with Placido Domingo, David Daniels, and Sarah Colburn.  I’m thrilled to be playing in Alcina, especially since I’ll be on stage in full costume playing the solo violin part with the Morgana character in Act II.  I’ve been performing on stage since I was seven, but I’ve never performed on an opera stage before! There will be seven performances of Alcina.     

Currently, I’m enjoying our run of Verdi’s Aida.  This is my first time playing this opera in its entirety and this work has quickly become one of my favorites.