NZTrio is weathering Covid-19 Level 2 restrictions to perform in Auckland. RICHARD BETTS speaks with pianist Somi Kim.
Somi Kim is the recently appointed pianist with NZTrio, and one of our most in-demand collaborative musicians. While 2020 has brought its fair share of cancellations, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom – earlier this year Kim was named an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music.
When Witchdoctor spoke with Kim in March, the pianist was self-isolating, having just returned from London, where she had lived for six years. A couple of days after our chat, New Zealand slipped into lockdown and NZTrio’s concert was cancelled. As a result, this interview was never published.
Now NZTrio is back and on a national tour, including three Auckland concerts that, as things stand, are being performed under socially distanced Level 2 restrictions.
Richard Betts – Congratulations on being made an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music.
Somi Kim – Thank you, it was a pleasant surprise. I have no idea who nominated me but it’s a nice few letters to put after my name. I graduated a couple of years ago and it’s sort of the Academy’s way of recognising the alumni who they feel have contributed significantly to musical life, so it’s nice.
Richard – Tell me a bit about your piano education.
Somi – I did a Master’s of solo piano in Auckland studying with Rae de Lisle and Stephen de Pledge. Then I moved to London for a two-year Master of Arts at RAM. And then for various reasons, one of them being that I really loved my teacher, I ended up doing an extra year. That was the Advanced Diploma of Performance, which I think is on a similar level to a doctorate for performance. I’ve been living in London for the past six years but I’m really thankful to be in New Zealand now.
Richard – Am I right in thinking that this forthcoming NZTrio season is the first where you’ve been part of programming the concerts?
Somi – Yes, that’s right, and it’s the first season where [NZTrio violinist] Amalia [Hall] and I are official members. We wanted to explore our ancestry, heritage and diversity, and at the same time celebrate Beethoven’s 250th anniversary and his influence on European music traditions. So in each of our series we have a Beethoven piano trio and a new commission, which is amazing. I think that’s why Amalia and I were so excited and honoured when we got asked to join, because there really aren’t many groups out there that are able to produce so many recordings and have so many commissions throughout the year and have such a focus on contemporary music. I think until I joined I felt quite ignorant about contemporary music but this is the music of our generation.
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Richard – NZTrio’s concerts are always very well attended, but with Covid these ones might not be. Are you emotionally prepared for that?
Somi – I think I emotionally prepared for this for a long time. I have lots of friends all over Europe, and it’s really emotional. The situations in Korea and Europe are a lot worse than here. Everyone’s had contracts ripped out from under them, so it’s a hard time for everyone.
Richard – In terms of the programming, how did it work between the three of you? Did you all come with an armful of music, throw it on the ground and fight over it?
Somi – We’ve been based all around the world and we have a document, sort of a playlist, which we’re constantly updating and throwing ideas out there. Amalia and I are so lucky because [cellist and founding NZTrio member] Ashley [Brown] is kind of a programming genius, so we’re happy to take his guidance on a lot of stuff like that. I guess the great thing about this job is we have full artistic control. As a collaborative pianist, it’s the dream to get to a stage where you can curate your own programming and concerts. A lot of the time I’m approached by instrumentalists who have booked concerts and are looking for pianists, so in those instances repertoire is chosen for you.
Richard – I understand you were friends with Amalia before you joined NZTrio. How well did you know Ashley?
Somi – Actually, even with Amalia, we were friends but she went to Rangitoto College and I was at Westlake, and I think she was a year above me at Auckland. So we didn’t actually know each other that well; we were more friends on social media. I only really got to know her when she was looking for a pianist in London to do the finals of the Royal Overseas League competition. It was the Commonwealth round and we got together for a few days, devised a programme together and luckily ended up winning. So that was our first performance. Since then we’ve done a couple of concerts but it wasn’t until we started playing together with the trio last year that our friendship really developed. With Ashley, I’d received some chamber music coaching from him when I was a student at Auckland. I’d just gone back to London after playing at the Gisborne International Music Competition [where Kim is a staff pianist] and I received an email from Ash saying, ‘Hello, are you interested in doing some playing with me next year?’ I was quite surprised and happy. I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, okay. Sure. You remember me?’ He told me that [founding NZTrio pianist] Sarah [Watkins] was leaving and he wanted to invite me to play with them. We all sort of grew up listening to the trio. I’m such a fan of Sarah’s and she’s always been such a great mentor to me; she’s been quite influential in developing my career as a collaborative pianist. So I didn’t know much about Ash but I know him very well now, and I think we all feel really lucky when we’re performing together. You know in music when something just works? We trust each other, and it’s like we’re breathing together. That’s very cheesy, I know, but it’s true. As a musician, you don’t meet many people like that in your career. We all bring a different musical personality to the table.
Richard – You had a life and career in England. Were there any doubts about joining the trio?
Somi – I had to consider a number of factors. Most of my really good friends are living in London or based in Europe. I always knew I wanted to come back to New Zealand but I hadn’t planned on doing that anytime soon. I never even dreamt about being a full-time chamber musician, because that job doesn’t really exist. I love the piano trio repertoire but I did have to think about it for a few weeks. I wouldn’t say there were any doubts, but there were lots of points that I had to consider, and the transition period hasn’t been so easy. Now that I’m here, I know it’s the right decision, but it’s hard to know where your home is. Of course, home is where your family is but I think when you’ve lived abroad for six years and you have a life there it’s not so black and white. I like to think of home as where I am at the moment. You know, live in the present.
- NZTrio’s Interfusions concert tour runs from 27 September to 25 October, and features music by Beethoven, Ravel and others, and includes a new commission by multi-award-winning New Zealand composer Salina Fisher. More information on NZTrio’s website.