Author: Bjørn Woll
ca. 3 minutes

Eun Sun Kim | Picture: Kim Tae-hwan

Schoenberg and Rachmaninoff: South Korean conductor Eun Sun Kim’s programme for her Berliner Philharmoniker debut reveals just how dissimilar musical worlds could be in the early 20th century. An encounter.

Eun Sun Kim is on a roll. As an opera conductor she’s playing in the premier league of international houses. She made her acclaimed debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2021 with La bohème; shortly before the end of last year, she introduced herself to Paris Opéra audiences with Les Contes d’Hoffmann; but also at La Scala, Milan and the Vienna State Opera, she’s been making her name in the world’s most venerated opera houses.

No less successful in the concert hall, Kim made her New York Philharmonic debut in February, and in April she conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time. She views these concerts with a mixture of anticipation and respect, but Kim also mentions a paradox that she says she has been aware of since the beginning of her career:  “When I conduct a piece for the first time – let’s say Beethoven’s Fifth – right in front of me are orchestral musicians who have already played it many times. And yet my task as conductor is to direct that orchestra; not because I know better, but because that’s part of my profession.”

Unruffled and down-to-earth

When Eun Sun Kim talks about herself and her profession, she sounds unruffled and down-to earth. And her account is punctuated by infectious laughter. We converse via video chat on the day after her dress rehearsal of Wagner’s Parsifal at Houston Grand Opera. And immediately, the conductor, born in South Korea in 1980, is enthusing about “exhilarating moments” when all the gears mesh perfectly during of an opera production.

In fact she never planned to become a conductor, at first studying composition in her native Seoul and serving as a répétiteur for her conservatory’s opera productions. One of her professors finally convinced her to take up conducting, a decision, she says, she has “never regretted”. She continued her studies in Stuttgart.

Although she has long since arrived at the major houses, Kim hasn’t forgotten her formative experiences in Germany’s municipal theatres. “The small venues, like Jena and Cottbus, where I conducted a great deal at the beginning, are an important foundation for me. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” Another important influence has been Kirill Petrenko: “and I’m not saying that just because I’m about to make my debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker,” she laughs.

Role models: Kirill Petrenko and Simone Young

In 2011, she assisted the Berliner Philharmoniker’s current principal conductor, who at the time was working on +Tristan und Isolde+ in Lyon. “That completely changed the way I thought about conducting;” she reacalls - “how one works with a score and one’s approach to the musicians. I somehow got the sense that he just keeps on going, that his work really begins at the point where others would already stop.” Another of her role models is Simone Young, who, she says, “has been a true pioneer and trailblazer since the early 1990s. Because of people like her, we have it easier today.”

Indeed, Eun Sun Kim is one in a whole cohort of young female conductors who have emphatically broken into a formerly male domain and by now occupy key positions in the field – something that would have been unthinkable before Simone Young’s groundbreaking work. Kim herself has for some years been music director of San Francisco Opera, having made her debut there in 2019 with Rusalka, delighting not only the press and the public but also the orchestral musicians.

Her passion for opera is reflected in her debut concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker: “2024 is the Schoenberg year, so of course there had to be a work of his. Our choice was Erwartung. A vocal work – because I come from opera – seemed a good idea for our first encounter.”