“You fool,” David Kim said to himself. He looked out the window at the moon. He and his wife had just seen the movie Jerry Maguire, with Tom Cruise as the sports agent trying to make the A-level. David Kim had spent his entire life trying to make the A-level. And it wasn’t happening.
His mother, before he was born, vowed to make him a violin star. His parents came to the U.S. from South Korea, and from Rochester, N.Y. to Western Pennsylvania to South Carolina, his mother was a true “Tiger mom,” he says, constantly pushing him to excel. She got him an audition with Dorothy DeLay at Juilliard, mentor to so many of the world’s top soloists. DeLay accepted him on the spot after what he describes as a “magical” audition.
From Clarion, Pa., the family drove eight hours for David to attend the Juilliard Pre-College Division. From South Carolina he and his mother flew once a month. Of DeLay he has the “few really happy memories” of that time; she was “sweet, genuine, soft-spoken, charismatic, motivational,” and perhaps most important of all, “encouraging.”
Three to five hours every day he practiced. He went to Aspen nine weeks each summer, but his playing regressed because, alone, he stopped pushing himself. DeLay noticed, and so did his mother. But in one phone call she was uncharacteristically subdued. When he returned home at the end of the summer, he found out that his mother was sick with cancer. She died within months. He was 14.
From the award-winning movie, Music from the Inside Out, David Kim reflects on his life:
David stopped working hard and he struggled at school. But DeLay made a plan. In six years, she said, he would get into the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and he would win one of the eight medals. They made it happen, and in the second round he “felt a certain magic happening” as he played. In 1986 David Kim was the only American violinist to win a medal. He thought his career was made.
He would learn differently. There are many competitions, and many winners, and this one prize, as fantastic as it was, “wasn’t special enough to really warrant an A-list career.” So he played lots of concerts in small halls, in churches, and puffed himself up to others. “I was living this fake life,” he confesses. And he came to a decision.
“You fool,” he said in his apartment, looking at the moon, “you are never going to be a soloist.”
So he applied for orchestra jobs, and after a string of losing auditions, he realized that “there’s an art to taking an orchestral audition.” He worked harder, kept taking them, and finally, on one day, was offered two jobs. He accepted the associate concertmaster position at the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. He learned enormously, and a year later, The Philadelphia Orchestra called. They were having invitation-only auditions for concertmaster. David thought this was “way out of my league” but went anyway, with “zero expectations.”
But at the Philadelphia audition magic struck again, the same feeling he had at the Tchaikovsky, the same feeling he had auditioning for Dorothy DeLay. The phone rang later, and Joseph Kluger, the Orchestra’s president at the time, asked him, “How would you feel about moving to Philadelphia?”
David admits to making mistakes early on but he grew into the concertmaster position he accepted in 1999. His Christian faith grew at the same time, and he now has a peace knowing that he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t God’s will. “Being yourself, you free yourself,” he says, and he is surrounded by an orchestra that is a positive, encouraging, and loving community.
After years of scrambling for something that didn’t exist, he is thankful for his faith, his wife, his daughters, and The Philadelphia Orchestra. In his 16th year as concertmaster, David Kim says, “I am the luckiest guy in the whole world.”
William Kroll: Banjo and Fiddle
Pablo de Sarasate: Carmen Fantasy, beginning
Pablo de Sarasate: Carmen Fantasy, ending
Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto, excerpt
Paul Jones: Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
Peter Leibensperger: ’Tis So Sweet/Amazing Grace
Edvard Grieg: Holberg Suite, excerpt