The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra has a new first fiddle.
The pivotal post of concertmaster – the leader of the violin section – has been vacant since the departure in spring 2014 of Michael Ludwig. Ludwig, who was appointed in 2006, left to pursue a solo career. For the last year, the orchestra has been welcoming guest concertmasters. And they have finally named Ludwig’s successor. He is Dennis Kim, a violinist with a cosmopolitan background.
Born in Korea, Kim grew up in Canada and was trained at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. At 22, he became concertmaster of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. Since then – he is now 40 – he has served as concertmaster with orchestras including the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. Currently, he is concertmaster of the much-respected Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra in Finland.
His guest appearance with the BPO took place in December, at a concert at which, coincidentally, Michael Ludwig was the soloist. The News’ review noted Kim’s presence and stated: "He projected a nice, positive energy.”
When the news of his appointment broke, Kim was in Tampere, a city of 250,000 where he lives with his wife and their two little girls.
The family expects to be relocated to Buffalo by December, he said. The city will be a novelty for them. December marked Kim’s first visit to our town.
"I grew up in Toronto so I am familiar with Buffalo but had never been to Buffalo,” he wrote. I visited Niagara Falls a million times but never made it to Buffalo,” he said in an email from Finland.
But he should fit in fine. "I grew up a die-hard Bills fan. Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly, etc.,” he wrote. "I know the passion of the sports fans in Buffalo, and hope that fans of the BPO will be just as fanatic.”
He was delighted when BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta called him in May, offering him the job.
"She was so kind, and so generous with her words, it made me blush,” he wrote. "I chose to accept the position for many reasons. To be able to work with JoAnn is obviously high on the list.”
There are other reasons on the list too.
"Buffalo being close to where I grew up also was a big factor. My mother lives in Toronto, so it will be nice to have her near,” Kim specified. "And a huge factor was the passionate audience members. They have a wonderful system at the BPO where volunteers drive artists around. The few people I met were amazing. So interested in everything to do with the BPO. So many great opinions, so many great ideas on making the BPO better, etc. Finally, the musicians of the BPO were amazing. I only played that one week, but I was very impressed with the level of the orchestra.”
Falletta, on the phone, described Kim as a great fit.
"The orchestra, I think, wanted a sort of hybrid person,” she said. "They wanted someone with a lot of energy and youthful vigor and enthusiasm. But they didn’t want someone who was inexperienced. They wanted, in addition, gravitas. In Dennis, we have both. He has played everywhere, the most difficult repertoire. He also has the kind of experience that will help us go to the next step in terms of assurance and ensemble perfection.”
Kim naturally returns the admiration.
"My very first professional engagement ever was with JoAnn,” he recalled. "I was a senior at Curtis and a friend of mine invited me to join the Virginia Symphony for their concert in Carnegie Hall. JoAnn was so sweet, she invited me backstage after the concert thanking me and personally invited me to audition for the Virginia Symphony. Most conductors don’t acknowledge extra musicians, let alone talk to them. Since that first meeting almost 20 years ago, I have worked with her in Seoul and have kept in touch. I was accepted to Yale for my master’s, so didn’t audition for Virginia, but many years later, it is an honor to have her as my boss.
"I think her best quality is that she is truly a great person,” he added. "I often have discussions with musicians wondering is it possible to be a good musician but not a good person. I think in the past there were some nasty people who were great conductors/musicians. There are stories of Karajan, Solti, Heifetz, not being the nicest people,” he reflected, alluding to German conductor Herbert von Karajan; American maestro Sir Georg Solti; and violinist Jascha Heifetz. "I think JoAnn’s integrity, her compassion, her love of people comes out in her conducting.”
Kim brings his own prestige to the BPO. He has collaborated with many of the world’s top musicians – and performed on some of the world’s top violins.
One memory he recalls with humor involves both. He was in Korea playing Bach’s Concerto For Two Violins with Pinchas Zukerman.
"At the time I was trying out violins and was playing a Guarneri Del Gesu. He has the Dushkin Del Gesu,” he wrote, naming two legendary, centuries-old violins. "So as we were tuning, he turned to me and said, this is probably the most expensive ‘A’ in the history of the world.”
The story has a funny postscript. "I now play the Dushkin Stradivarius 1701,” Kim explained. "So if he ever comes to play with the BPO, we will have a chance to hear the Dushkin Del Gesu and Dushkin Strad on the same stage.”
Kim will make his first official appearance with the BPO at the opening gala, which takes place Sept. 16 and features superstar virtuoso Lang Lang. The new concertmaster’s experience in Finland will prepare him well for Finnfest, two weekends of Nordic-themed concerts scheduled for early October and inspired by Kleinhans Music Hall’s Finnish architects, Eliel and Eero Saarinen.