Get to know Sunwook Kim

Headshot of Sunwook Kim against a plain grey background, looking into the camera

You’ve played with the Philharmonia Orchestra regularly over the last 15 years, in London, around the UK and in Korea – what’s your best Philharmonia memory?

I cherish every performance I’ve had with the Philharmonia Orchestra. The Schumann concerto with Vladimir Ashkenazy, Beethoven’s Fourth with Juraj Valčuha, and Mozart’s C Minor concerto with Edward Gardner are all memorable. I’m also very excited about the upcoming concert, collaborating with Santtu-Matias Rouvali for the first time.

Your career includes performing with orchestras, solo recitals, chamber music and conducting. Do you have a favourite?

Since I was young, I’ve just loved music for no specific reason. It brought me joy more than any other hobby, and expressing that music through the piano was happiness to me. The reason I dreamed of becoming a conductor since I was young is not so much about conducting itself, but because I loved orchestral music, and I love chamber music because of its intrinsic beauty. Therefore, for me, music itself is splendid and precious, whether expressed through the piano or conducting. When I play the piano, I don’t think of it as playing the piano, and when I conduct, I don’t think of it as conducting. I’m merely a messenger, conveying the language and spirit of the music, as I perceive it, directly to the audience.

You’ve been playing Brahms’s music for many years. If you could meet him, what would you want to talk about?

When I play the music of Brahms, I feel physically and mentally closer to it than the music of other composers. If I were to meet Brahms, given that his life and music were full of contradictions and he was always strict with himself in terms of his perfectionism, I would want to offer him support and encouragement, to let him know I’m on his side rather than asking questions. On the other hand, the person I would really like to ask questions isn’t Brahms, but Beethoven. There’s so much I want to ask Beethoven. The slow movement of Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto starts with a beautiful cello solo.

Do you discuss interpretation with the cellist before the rehearsals begin, or respond to each other in the moment?

When I am on the stage, I don’t perform with a predetermined interpretation. Just as every day’s weather is different, the process of creating flow in music varies from moment to moment. While all performers know the direction we should head towards, how we get there is crafted in each moment. This is especially true for the slow movement of this concerto – my performance changes depending on how the solo cello sings. That’s why there’s no such thing as the same interpretation in every performance.

You studied in London and you’ve made it your home – what do you love about the city?

I was born in Seoul, and after graduating from the Korean National University of Arts at the age of 20, the first place I lived outside Korea was London. Studying conducting with Colin Metters at the Royal Academy of Music established the foundation for my career as a conductor. Although I spent a brief period in Germany, London is unequivocally my second home. It’s impossible not to love this city where tradition and diversity coexist.

What have you been listening to lately?

Recently, I attended the UK premiere of the cello concerto by Donghoon Shin, a close friend of mine and a great composer. From Rameau and Bach through Wagner’s operas to Kurtág, every music is air and oxygen to me.

Sunwook Kim joins the Philharmonia Orchestra and conductor Santtu-Matias Rouvali to perform Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on Thursday 2 May.