Issue 35:6 July/August 2012 Fanfare
WONKAK KIM PLAYS THE MUSIC OF FRANÇOIS DEVIENNE
by Maria Nockin
Wonkak Kim is clarinet professor at Tennessee Technological University; when he speaks you can tell how much he loves teaching. He plays numerous solo engagements with various orchestras and holds the position of principal clarinet in a symphony orchestra, and he plays with a chamber group called Enhake. I spoke with him on a Saturday when he was not teaching but was working in his office. For a musician, there are no weekends off.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I was born in Seoul, Korea. I grew up there and briefly moved to Paris before coming to the States in 2000. I came here as a ninth grader and spent a couple of years in northern Virginia. That was a time of learning for me in a great many ways. I was learning English and I started to study clarinet at that time with an incredible teacher and mentor, Kenneth Lee. Like many children in Korea, I had begun my musical education with piano when I was very young. My mother is quite artistic, so she saw to that aspect of my education. I was exposed to a great deal of classical music at home in Seoul, but I did not have any serious musical training until I came to the United States. After I came here, I very seldom listened to anything but classical music. Although it may not be a totally good thing, I simply cannot listen to non-classical music for pleasure. The music I listen to now is often very abstract or by Bach. I love his suites and partitas. I also love to listen to piano sonatas. Actually, there are times when I force myself to listen to some mainstream popular music that I think I need to be aware of, but for enjoyment, it’s strictly classical music for me.
Q: Why did you choose clarinet?
A: I did not choose it myself. My mother suggested it to me and I was very fortunate to be able to study with the best teacher in my area when I moved to northern Virginia.
Q: How old were you when you first played in public?
A: Since my first teacher, Kenneth Lee, had many opportunities for his students to play, I took advantage of that. I played competitions and recitals at the regional and state levels. After one year of instruction, when I was 16, I played in public for the first time. If I inherited any talent, it is probably from my mother. She is very artistic. For one thing, she is a visual artist. She contributed her original paintings for both my Naxos CDs. For the Devienne, she had to mentally create the period costumes and furniture and then paint the likenesses of Eun-hye Grace Choi and myself into the picture. She told me that it was quite a difficult task. I look forward to more collaborations with her. She loves the fact that I play clarinet and it really is the best thing I’ve ever done. When an instrument is right for you, you tend to progress quickly. When you are very young, your parents or teachers might have to make sure you practice even if it is not enjoyable, but that is only while you are developing preliminary skills. It is much more difficult to obtain those skills when you are older. However, if you always have to be pushed by your parents, you will not get very far in music. It’s really a balance that parent and child have to achieve. By the time youngsters reach college age, the age I teach, they should already have strong motivation and a good bit of self-discipline. I help my students to continually set the highest standards. Successful students use every available time and every possible resource to achieve their goals. I do think that people who have a genuine love for music and a reasonable amount of determination will find a way to contribute to the musical world, no matter what their backgrounds. They will catch up if they have to. Since I did not have extensive training before the age of 15, I later put all my available time into working on fundamental clarinet skills. I still do that every day.
Q: Are you ever concerned with the possibility of physical problems due to repetitive muscle use?
A: Most instruments require very unnatural postures. As wind players, we constantly use our embouchures as well as our fingers. Even if we try to minimize the tension and relax after a few hours of playing, we have to be very careful. I consult a therapist or physician whenever I am involved in an extensive project, such as a recording, which will require a great deal of repetition. That kind of work can be both mentally and physically exhausting. A stress injury is one of the most fearsome problems a musician can confront because it can keep him from playing. It’s important to pay the utmost attention to anything that can cause it. We always have to look toward the long term. As a young player, I look forward to many decades of playing.
Q: Who were your most important teachers?
A: I had three really great teachers and mentors who prepared me for my career: Kenneth Lee, with whom I studied in Virginia; Donald Oehler at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Frank Kowalsky at Florida State University. I did my master’s degree and my doctorate at Florida State University. I also studied with well-known clarinetists, such as David Schifrin and Richard Stoltzman. One of the most rewarding experiences for me was to work with members of the great ensembles, such as the Artis, Brentano, and Tokyo string quartets and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. All of them have influenced my music.
Q: How did you start your solo career?
A: I’ve entered a great many competitions, and they have worked out very well for me. They were one of the best motivations for my work ethic. When I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to do in music, competitions provided me with a specific list of things to assemble. I believe the process of preparation and participation is the greatest reward that comes from competing. While everyone looks forward to the prizes, the result is simply not in the contestant’s control, even on the best day. Players who end up in the later rounds of competitions are all incredibly good. All of them, I believe, deserve awards. The more competitions I entered, the better chance I had of winning prizes. I entered everything in which I could possibly compete and was sometimes extremely fortunate.
I’ve really been blown away with the talent of my generation. With the availability of websites like YouTube, we can all see the level of talent that is out there. Every day I find a new player with extraordinary talent. I often look to see what the current level of artistry is. That way I get an idea of how much there is to learn. That can be depressing at times, but my only valid comparison is with myself, and my goal is to play better today than I did yesterday. As long as you are open to learning from all the finest players, you are getting better. There is always something new that you can learn from each and every player. That keeps me continuing my career. It really amazes me how good clarinetists are these days.
Q: What will most of your students do when they graduate?
A: Most of them will teach music in elementary and high schools. A few of them will go on to graduate school and become either college instructors or performers. The majority of my students definitely go into education. I worry about the future of classical music because the current trend is not in our favor. I think one of the best ways of reversing that trend is by producing excellent teachers. The easiest way for the general public as a whole to be exposed to classical music is by means of classes in the public schools. That is the way the average person becomes aware of concerts and the enjoyment they can bring. When they enjoy classical music they will want music lessons for their children. Today, the whole trend is to cut back on the arts. All my energy as an educator is dedicated to reversing that trend. I don’t expect many of the children my students teach to become professional musicians. I just want them to be aware of the great works of classical music. With the help of fine music educators in the early grades, it would be possible for the majority of our children to develop an appreciation of it and enjoy it. My aim is to produce great music teachers. While it is true that musical organizations can help fill the gaps left by the schools, my hope is that the public will eventually realize the importance of the arts and put greater emphasis on teaching music. Music is absolutely necessary core education. We can easily show that with empirical data. I do believe we can look forward to a brighter future for classical music if we are diligent and passionate in showing the benefits of music education. We need good courses and fine teachers in all the arts in the public schools.
Q: Where did the members of Enhake get together?
A: We formed the ensemble while we were studying at Florida State. I’ve been playing with them for more than four years now. Competitions were the main force driving us at the beginning. They gave us our goals, and we were very successful in achieving them. The prizes we won gave us recognition and a starting ground. We went on tour to Central America, South America, and the Pacific. We played in Costa Rica, Brazil, Korea, and Japan. Because we are an unusual group of instruments, we play mostly modern music. There is not that much music written for that instrumentation. We actually got together for the first time to play Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time. Since then, we’ve been exploring little-known music and commissioning new works.
Q: How is air travel with a clarinet?
A: It’s actually quite good. Almost everyone seems to recognize the clarinet case. It is amusing to see that some Transportation Security Administration officers actually want to show off that they know what it is. That makes my life a lot easier. Only once in Japan did some of them think it was a questionable device. They made me take it out and explain each part. On the whole I’ve not had nearly as much trouble as other players I know. Cellists, whose instruments get their own seats, have the most trouble, I think. Cellos need odometers on their cases so they can record their frequent flyer miles. At least I don’t have to buy a seat for my clarinet. I do have to be very careful of it, however. It is a wooden instrument and it can easily crack.
Q: What can you tell us about the music on your new Devienne disc?
A: Devienne was a very important teacher. Best known for his flute method, he was a tremendously talented musician who played in France’s leading ensembles. He mastered multiple wind instruments at an early age. It is remarkable, considering that wind prodigies are not nearly as common as violin and piano prodigies. He also wrote many sonatas, mostly for flute. They can also be played by clarinet and bassoon, however. Most of his sonatas tend to be bare, with unfigured bass parts. For this reason many of his pieces need to be fleshed out by publishers. Thus, a great number of his works have not yet been published in playable form. That is not something to be expected because he wrote in the Classical era, not the Baroque. Although Devienne was a contemporary of Mozart, sometimes his writing is almost in Baroque sonata form. It makes me wonder if he occasionally chose to write in an older style. At other times, however, he is fully into the classical style. Once in a while he even seems to range into early Romanticism. Certainly, he was a very creative composer who tried to incorporate both old and new styles into his composition. He gave all his works a great deal of forethought and many ideas that are completely his own.
There are conflicting views on the interpretation of every composer’s music. Sometimes I play Devienne’s music straight with minimal gesture. At other times I just want to have fun and I make his pieces quite romantic. Then I play with a great deal of freedom. My playing on the recording, however, is rather reserved. Both interpretations have their merits. Sometimes the printed page is perfect and all you have to do is play. At other times you can add your personal taste and make great music. On this particular recording I chose to keep my interpretation clean and pure. That does not mean I play the same way at each performance. There are certain ground rules to be followed, of course, but there is no need to play a piece the same way every time. My interpretation is bound to change over time as a result of experience and my personal interpretation. The first recording I made was as a member of Enhake. Since it was made up of modern music that was not easy listening, I was reluctant to give it as a gift. Devienne’s music is far more accessible. It makes me happy to think that I can give this disc to just about anybody.
Q: Where is the best place to get a copy of the Devienne CD?
A: You can get a download of the Naxos album from any major vendor, such as iTunes or Amazon, but you can only get the actual compact disc directly from me at francoisdevienne.org. You can also e-mail me on that site. I would love to speak with anyone who is interested in the CD and the music of Francois Devienne.
Q: Did you write both the English and the French notes that come with the Devienne CD?
A: Yes, as I said earlier, I lived in France for a while. Unfortunately, I am no longer fluent in French, but I was when I lived there. When you are young you learn languages fast, and forget them quickly, too. I wrote the notes in English and did a rough translation into French. Then, I had a native speaker make the necessary corrections.
Q: What can you tell me about Eun-Hye Grace Choi, the pianist on your Devienne recording?
A: Eun-Hye Grace Choi and I are actually an engaged couple. It’s just a very fortunate, wonderful circumstance that we can connect on a personal as well as a musical level. She is both a very good friend and an excellent professional collaborator. This is our first compact disc together and I am looking forward to many more. We’re been brainstorming many different ideas. She started as a composer, but she has maintained the skills she needs to play with others. It is really important that a pianist be open to working with others. I can’t tell you what great perquisites come from having a wonderful pianist as my fiancée. I am tremendously fortunate in having such an incredible lifelong companion and I look forward to our traveling around the world together.
Q: How do you divide your time between teaching and performing?
A: This is my first year teaching here at Tennessee Tech. Usually, my performances are booked over a year in advance, so right now I have an enormous workload. I’m teaching full-time and I’ve a ton of performances. Sometimes I travel three times a month to perform, but I plan on cutting back on some of my performances outside of the university, at least during the academic year. I want to focus more on teaching, but I will still perform regularly. I try to have fun with every aspect of this career and traveling to play is an important aspect of it, even if it is sometimes physically tiring. I did think of having a different career. For a very short time in my life, I thought of going to law school! That idea did not last long, however. I’m happy because I’m doing what I love. It’s the best of all possible scenarios and I am grateful that I can do what I enjoy.
Q: What type of modern technology do you use most often?
A: I like using an iPad for scores. That way I can store as much music as I need without carting bulky books of music around with me. I have performed directly from it a few times, but the fact that it might turn itself off because of some technical failure makes me a little nervous. Recently I found a program called Notions, a Finale-like notation software that I find helpful. I doubt that one could compose a symphony on it, but it is useful for writing exercises for students. My iPad has almost completely replaced my laptop. It really is a matter of what you want to make work for you. I can do everything necessary on the iPad.
Q: What will be on your next CD?
A: It will have the music of German composer, Stephan Krehl, (1864–1924), who lived in Leipzig. He was a composer, teacher, and theoretician. His writings include Traité Général de la Musique (General Treatise on Music) and Théorie de la Musique et de Science de la Composition (Theory of Music and of the Science of Composition). He was a contemporary of Brahms and he wrote beautiful, expressive Romantic music. I will be playing his clarinet quintet with the Tesla Quartet. You can find out more about them at teslaquartet.com. They will also be performing his only quartet.
Q: How do you see the future of classical music?
A: We cannot take anything for granted because, generally speaking, things are not currently headed in the right direction. Besides, most aspects of the trend are not under our control. Everybody in music has to try to connect with the public in some way. There are many ways in which each of us can take part. At this stage of my life, the most important thing I can do is to train public school teachers so that they can work with the next generation. If we can get everyone to know something about classical music, we can get back to where we were one or two generations ago. That would give us a much brighter future. There is a surge of music in many different cultures. Los Angeles is incorporating El Sistema, which is a tremendous success in Venezuela. Across the world in East Asia there is another surge. If we can only introduce the young to classical music, that is enough to get them interested. That interest can become infectious as they grow up and it can remain with them for the rest of their lives.