Violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim has served as Concertmaster of the PNB Orchestra since 2009; he is also co-founder of the award-winning Corigliano Quartet, performing at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Weill Recital Hall, and the Kennedy Center. The ensemble’s CD, featuring works by John Corigliano was honored as one of The New Yorker’s Top Ten Classical Recordings of the Year. Mr. Lim attended Indiana University, where he studied with the legendary Josef Gingold, and the Juilliard School, where he taught as an assistant to the Juilliard String Quartet. He currently serves on the faculty of Cornish College of the Arts. He will perform the violin solo in the PNB premiere of William Forsythe’s New Suite, March 13-22 at McCaw Hall.
How did you get your start in music?
MJL: My first concert was going to see my mother play in a concert. She played violin in the Lafayette Symphony Orchestra in Lafayette, Indiana, where I grew up.
I didn’t think of [playing violin] in terms of wanting to do it for a career; it was something I wanted to do and liked to do. My mom taught me at first and gave me lessons from the age of 4, then I went on to other teachers. For a while it was just another thing I did that I liked – I played basketball and liked that, I played violin and liked that. I’d say probably around the age of 15 or 16 is when I realized, ‘This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’
My teachers were always very positive and encouraging, so it’s something I knew I was good at, but I don’t really remember any of my teachers in particular saying, ‘Oh, you could have a career in this if you went into it.’ My teachers would push me to be the best I could be, and then wherever I took it from there was up to me.
What is a concertmaster’s role in the orchestra?
MJL: Given that Seattle is such a Seahawks town and I’m a big fan myself: it’s sort of like a football team – you have a coach, or the conductor, and you have a quarterback, who’s sort of like the concertmaster.
There are certain [responsibilities] across the board in any orchestra: you stand and tune the orchestra at the beginning of rehearsals and concerts, you do the bowings (different styles of drawing the bow across the strings). Before each performance, I’ll mark in the bowings for the first violin part, then my part will get passed around to the other principals and they’ll bow their parts based on what I’ve put down in my part. That’s an important part you don’t see – it’s kind of behind the scenes. The bowings are important; they’ll dictate the way that a phrase is played, how short or how long certain notes will be; I’ll usually take a full score to a piece and look at it – it’s important to know how the first violin part fits into the whole of the whole orchestra, not to just bow my part however I feel like it, but to know where it fits, where I’m perhaps more accompaniment and can be more in the background and where to take the lead.
It seems like that would take a lot of time…
MJL: “It can. It depends on how familiar I am with a certain composer – if it’s a piece that we’ve played a lot before and I’m just making little tweaks to a part that already exists, or if it’s a completely new work. Generally you try to unify the strings and the entire orchestra, in terms of how to bring to life what the composer wrote and how to facilitate the vision of the conductor.”
What are some of the challenges and rewards of serving as Concertmaster?
MJL: I think the challenge is to earn the trust of the orchestra and the conductor. When I started in 2009, coming in as only the 2nd concertmaster in the orchestra’s history (and they were very open to me and the fact that I would do things a little differently), the challenge was to earn trust and build on that. I think over the years that’s happened, and it’s a really great relationship. That’s an important part of being the concertmaster, to make sure these relationships are good and that it’s a really positive working environment for everybody.
It’s an interesting job; on the one hand you’re part of the team – and this orchestra is very much like a family, more so than other groups that I’ve been a part of. It’s really wonderful and a really close knit group that’s been together for a long time. [On the other hand] I play all the violin solos unless I’m not there in which case our wonderful Associate Concertmaster (Brittany Boulding) plays them – [there are] no guest soloists. When there’s a concerto or a major violin part, the concertmaster always plays them.
How is it going back and forth between playing as a soloist and part of an ensemble?
MJL: You get better over time and learn how to balance those two roles. It can be very challenging, because it’s a very different way of playing when you’re playing as a member of a section as opposed to being more of a soloist. Some ballets, like Swan Lake, where there are these wonderful big violin solos throughout the ballet, you’ll be playing in your section for 20 or 30 minutes and then suddenly without more than a few seconds of break in between, you’re a soloist. So that requires a big change, not only mentally but in physicality.
Can you speak to the importance of live orchestral music at the ballet?
MJL: It’s such a huge difference. I think of it like leaving a message for someone on their voicemail – you’re just leaving a message for a machine. If you compare that with how you feel when you’re relating that same message to a live person on the other end, it’s such a different feeling – there’s excitement, there’s interaction – and that’s what it’s like with live music. It’s a completely different experience and just so important. When I have heard ballet with recorded music (which hasn’t been that often), it feels like half of the performance is missing. Because ballet is such a beautiful kind of melding of these two art forms, when you’ve got a recorded piece rather than live musicians, something is definitely lacking. And it must be such a difference to dance to live music…you know, that sense of creation and collaboration that’s happening on the spot.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
MJL: Vartan Manoogian, a teacher who was really important to me, said, ‘Be good at everything that your instrument can be asked for.’ You don’t know where life will lead you, so I made sure I was as good as I could be in every aspect. [Classical, musical theatre, solo/ensemble playing] – they all feed each other.
Watch Michael and PNB Orchestra Conductor Allan Dameron accompany PNB dancers Seth Orza and Kylee Kitchens at the 2013 Vail International Dance Festival:
Interview conducted and condensed by Kristen Ramer Liang.