A classical gas (and the road here)

The ineffable Mina Kim beams during her doctoral recital last night at NEC’s Brown Hall.


Most of my Shrove Tuesdays are spent draped in beads and feathers, parading with a brass band somewhere in musical observance of Mardi Gras. Yesterday, I opted for a far different but no less celebratory evening: going to Brown Hall at the New England Conservatory to listen to cello virtuoso Mina Kim’s recital “in partial fulfillment of the Doctor of Music Arts degree.”
I enjoy classical music immensely, but most of my trips to Symphony Hall have been expressly to see jazz artists. My audience experiences are largely limited to small chamber orchestras. I don’t know enough technically or historically about classical music to render a critical review of Mina Kim’s performance, but as I sat there listening with wonderment as she attacked the highly intricate and emotional Sonata for Solo Cello, Op.8 by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály in its three spiraling movements, I paused to consider — and to appreciate — what brought me there.
Mina Kim’s arrival to that moment is easier to explain: Boston is home to 19 colleges and universities that offer musical degrees. She came to Boston from Busan, South Korea, to study at three such colleges: Longy School of Music, Emerson, and NEC (two post-grad programs). The schools, musicians and opportunities that make Boston a destination for young artists is another thing that makes this city special: It contributes to the great collaborations between musicians here.
Which brings us to a note Mina wrote most eloquently in the program: “I love the English word ‘folk’ even though I have a tremendously hard time pronouncing it. I like not only that it indicates something about the traditional culture of a community or nation, but also that in another sense it means ‘people.’ In that way, folk music implies something more than just simple tunes and catchy melodies. It is closely related to the culture in the shared experiences amongst people. … Once you dig deeper into folk music from different countries and cultures, you start noticing that all this different music focuses on expressing two primary human emotions that ordinary people feel: joy and sorrow. In the end, the idea of ‘folk’ brings ordinary people, all of us, together because we know what it feels like to be human beings.” (Upon reading that last night, I wanted to stand and yell, “Bravo,” even as Mina was warming up behind the curtain.)
It is folk music and the goal of bringing people together that introduced me to Mina Kim some two years ago. I met her at Club Passim, the hub of the Hub’s musical collaboration, when she was playing with Rosin bandmate Zachariah Hickman in the first of his quickly legendary “Power Outage” shows. I love cello, especially as a solo instrument, so I was excited to see Mina Kim introduced among the list of mystery guests that night. It wasn’t long before I realized she is a very special talent — and person.
Her playing was alluring enough simply sitting in on some of the songs, but upon Hickman’s yielding of the floor to her to play a solo piece, a cello sonata by Eugène Ysaÿe, my mood went from excited to enthralled. Sitting there, in the dark, I heard in her approach a dichotomy that is summed up in her elemental “joy and sorrow” declaration. While she played that piece with a seriousness, respect and precision of an academic purist, there was an innate joy that poured through it. When she was done, there was a burst of energy, and one seemingly of relief. She had honored the intricate heart of Ysaÿe’s composition and was suddenly free to let that joy explode past the music stand and into the room. (It was the same sensation last night when she finished the seemingly impossible Sonata for Solo Cello, Op.8.)
Thanks to Passim, and the collaborative beauty it fosters through “folk” music as so deeply and aptly described by Mina Kim, I’ve been fortunate to see her perform many, many times since then. She has became a crowd favorite at the Harvard Square club. And why not? Beyond the musicianship, her remarkable and unshakable spirit shines even in the dark of a “power outage” party. Mina has shown off stylish dance moves born of joy on that stage, and on the rare occasions when she steps to the microphone to speak, it is with great humility, candor and, yes, joy. It is there I first heard her discuss humorously her difficulty in pronouncing “folk” — and a few other words that have made for inside jokes with Rosin. It was fitting that those bandmates (Hickman, bass; Annie Bartlett, violin and viola; and Jake Armerding (guitar, mandolin, vocals) were there to share the moment and the stage with Mina last night in a final round of five Armerding-composed songs. That sweet collaboration … “all of us, together because we know what it feels like to be human beings.”
Admittedly, I was a bit worried that the recital perhaps meant an imminent end to Mina Kim’s time in Boston. So as I praised and congratulated her backstage last night, I asked that question. “Oh, no. I’m not leaving. I have at least a couple of more years here,” she said with her ever-radiant grin. “I’ll be seeing you at Passim!”