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Meet the Musicians

Five Questions with Eun Sun Kim

A headshot of Eun Sun Kim, sitting in a chair and looking directly at the camera.
Credit: Kim Tae Hwan

Named a 2021 Breakout Star in Classical Music by The New York Times, the rise of conductor Eun Sun Kim—who today serves as music director of the San Francisco Opera—has been meteoric. Kim will make her first appearance with the Minnesota Orchestra in concerts March 8-9. She brings with her an ambitious program that includes Texu Kim's Dub-Sanjo, Arnold Schoenberg's one-act opera Erwartung with soprano Heidi Melton and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

In-between appearances with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and the New York Philharmonic, she took a moment to tell us about her path to conducting, her approach to working with new orchestras and about how the upcoming program came together.

The program that you’re bringing to Orchestra Hall is fascinating: Tchaikovsky’s Fifth has been a staple of the Orchestra’s repertoire since 1906—but curiously, we’ve never performed Schoenberg’s century-old Erwartung. Tell us more about why you’ve selected these pieces.

I want to honor that 2024 is both the 150th anniversary of Schoenberg’s birth and the 100th anniversary of Erwartung’s world premiere. Since I work in both symphonic and operatic repertoire, this was an excellent opportunity to meld these worlds and champion a piece with a vocalist. I look forward to sharing this orchestra’s first time with this piece.

Conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth will be a special moment for me personally, since it was the piece I was in the middle of rehearsing—quite literally on the podium with Seattle Symphony—when rehearsals were called to a halt and COVID lockdowns began. This will be my first time returning to the piece since that moment, and it carries a special sense to me of really making it through the pandemic.

You've now conducted at least four compositions by Texu Kim, whose work Dub-Sanjo opens these concerts. How did you first get connected with Texu, and what do you enjoy about his music and conducting it?

Texu and I were introduced by a mutual friend who is also a conductor. Texu has incredible nuance in his music and a beautiful way of imbuing music with Korean colors while not getting mired in tradition. He really has his own musical language, and I love getting a chance to share that with new orchestras.

It’s a momentous year for you, with notable debuts with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and the New York Philharmonic. How do you approach working with new orchestras—especially those of this caliber?

I have huge respect for these orchestras, and I’m really looking forward to making music with them. But with any orchestra, I begin in much the same way: following what the composer or score has told us to do.

I come with my interpretation, of course, but I’m also listening to hear what the musicians are offering.

They often will have played the pieces many times over the years, so rehearsals are a chance to fine-tune communication, find that give and take and develop our chemistry so that we can create special moments together in performance.

You studied both conducting and composition. What made you decide to turn your attention completely to conducting?

I studied composition first, as an undergraduate student, and I often played chamber music and served as the rehearsal pianist for the university’s opera productions. My professor observed me working with some singers and recommended I give conducting a try. I tried it out of curiosity, with no expectation that this would become my life’s path. I then moved to Germany for my graduate work in conducting, after which I won a competition and job with Teatro Real Madrid and began my career.

In a dimly-lit orchestra pit, Eun Sun Kim is pictured conducting a string section.
Eun Sun Kim leads the San Francisco Opera in a 2019 performance of Antonín Dvořák's opera "Rusalka"

Credit: Kristen Loken

And if you weren’t working in music at all, what do you think you’d be doing?

I might consider being a simultaneous translator—I love languages and have studied German, English, Spanish, French and Italian, in addition to my native Korean. I usually converse in the language of the place where I’m performing and read in the language of the composer I’m conducting. Sometimes I am lucky enough for those to be the same!

Don't miss Eun Sun Kim take the podium with the Minnesota Orchestra.

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