When family harmony really countsJohann Strauss and sons, Johann Jr. and Josef. Leopold Mozart and son, Wolfgang.
Father-and-son musician duets have appeared throughout history. Far more rare, however, are trios.
Until now, that is.
The Korean-American pianist Paul Kim and his two teenage sons, Matthew, 16, and James, 14, formed the “Paul Kim & Sons Trio Pianists” last year. The three arrived in Seoul this week for their first trio performances in their ancestral country.
In the days leading up to the concerts, they stay occupied tickling the ivories at the grand piano of the Ho-Am Art Hall’s main hall, a 10-minute walk from City Hall in downtown Seoul.
Paul Kim and his eldest son, Matthew, are seated side by side before the piano at center stage, rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, scored for duet.
Both appear intense, though the more seasoned father displays more virtuosity, his bodily gestures and hand movements those of a refined artist. Beside him, the son performs with swift, powerful movements, exhibiting confidence at the keys.
Four hands move in harmony, deftly stroking the keys without getting in each other’s way. They play with such ease that it seems almost effortless. Nearby, James, the younger son, watches his father and elder brother rehearse.
“In a real performance situation, we would have two pianos,” says Paul Kim. “Usually, a trio performance would consist of one person sitting solo and two at another piano. It’s hard to accommodate three grand pianos for a trio performance, works better with two. And, there is not that much music available interesting or intriguing enough for three pianists. So we have to devise them.”
For a trio performance, Paul Kim, after selecting the music, transcribes it from the original score to accommodate three pianists. Their repertoire will include solo performances of classical composers such as Liszt, Bach and Messiaen in the first half of the concert, with a medley of jazz and show tunes from musicals like “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sound of Music” in the second half.
“I have a feeling of how I can gel around the scores so the three of us can play piano,” say Mr. Kim of his creative effort in developing arrangements. So far, the results of his potpourri of classical, jazz and show tunes have found a diverse and eager audience in the United States.
The trio, joined by the boys’ mother, arrived in Seoul Monday for a series of charity concerts, raising money for the Music Angels International Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports young performing artists and brings music to audiences with limited opportunities to experience it, such as the poor or disabled. Both Paul Kim and his wife serve on the Music Angels’ board. Saturday’s program features solos by each of the Kims, a duet by Mr. Kim and Matthew, and the trio playing Francis Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos.
Matthew has chosen a fairly difficult Liszt solo, because “I want to play really fast ... something really challenging,” he says. “It took me a long time to master the piece, but it was well worth it.” James will be performing a score by Henry Cowell, though he is partial to Chopin.
Paul Kim glows about both his sons, though he feels they have different strengths. “James feels music; it moves through him and he expresses it outwardly. He works very hard at it,” explains Mr. Kim. “For Matthew, playing the piano comes more naturally. He has the innate ability to look at a piece and analyze quickly how he wants to approach it. I have healthy respect for my sons and their musical capabilities.”
Both teenagers have an aura of confidence and poise about them. They speak quite eloquently for their ages.
Mr. Kim has performed duets with his elder son, Matthew, since 1995; they played to a full house at New York’s venerable Carnegie Hall in 1996. But the trio is an initiative that began just last year.
For James, involvement has meant a lot more practice time than he bargained for, “because both my father and my brother are very good and they’ve been performing together for many years,” says James.
Paul Kim’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s “Prelude 1964” ― a piece only recently discovered by the late composer’s wife, Yvonne ― will be another exciting aspect of their Korea tour, as it will be the premier of this score here.
For father and sons, the joint musical venture has been as natural as playing catch. “I am a pianist, my wife is a soprano ― music runs in our family,” Mr. Kim says. “My sons were exposed to music before even being born.”
Although the boys learned to read notes while their friends read comic books, and listened to sonatas while other boys played soccer, they did not intend to pursue it as a career. At the least, their father hopes, “music becomes an important and crucial part of their lives.”
Have there been moments of tension during rehearsals? A clash of egos? The two boys grin and look at their father, who smiles and says, “Of course. The three of us have strong wills. But”― he glances at his wife ― “Mom holds a central position in the family. She is the mediator and coordinator.”
Not only is Paul Kim a renowned pianist, but he is also a highly regarded conductor, composer and judge of international music competitions, as well as a professor at Long Island University in New York.
“Everything I do collaborates with the others,” he says.
Yvonne Messiaen has said of Mr. Kim, “He is truly a grand pianist. ... Everything is perfect: the technique, the sonorities, the rhythm, the colors and the emotions.” And Harold Shonberg of the New York Times has described his performance as “big, healthy and robust. [His performance] is deeply satisfying and refreshingly individualistic.”
Mr. Kim, his wife Judith Jeon, and their two musical prodigies visit Korea every two years or so, performing at solo recitals and with orchestras. Their instruments are not limited to piano; Matthew plays the flute and trumpet (he’s a member of the Stuyvesant High School orchestra), while James has played the clarinet for four years and recently picked up the classical guitar.
Since forming just one year ago, the trio has held 10 concerts. As for the future, Mr. Kim insists he will not force music upon Matthew and James. “We don’t know how often we can go on tour if the boys go off to college. This may be their first and the last tour in Korea. There’s a sense of poignancy and urgency.”
The Trio Performance will be held at the Ho-Am Art Hall at 5 p.m. Saturday. Daegu and Jeonju performances follow next week. Tickets start at 40,000 won ($30). For more information, call (02) 751-9606.
by Choi Jie-ho
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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