Conductor Kim Eun Sun (SPO)
Conductor Kim Eun Sun started her role as music director of the San Francisco Opera last August, becoming the first woman ever to lead the opera company, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. The descriptors first female and sometimes first Asian also follow as she makes history throughout her career.
Those labels don’t register while she’s in rehearsals and concerts, she said. But it is when she’s outside those rehearsal rooms and concert halls that she realizes that she is seen as something other than just a conductor.
“I did not realize that for many people I’m seen as a woman first and a conductor second and the same goes for my Asian ethnicity for other people. Its disorienting because with fellow musicians, that’s never an issue,” the San Francisco-based conductor said.
“But after performances, I get a lot of feedback from the younger female students who reach out to me to say that seeing me conducting inspires them,” she added.
At the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, a retiring female violist of the orchestra told her that “she had never imagined bumping into a conductor in a female restroom.”
Kim recalls a time when this reality was brought to her attention by her professor, conductor Choi Seung-han, who she credits with discovering her talent in conducting and pushed her to do further studies. When Kim was a composition major and pianist at Yonsei University, female conductors were few and far between. Her professor, while encouraging her, reminded her to take this fact into consideration when making the decision to pursue conducting as a career.
Even then, it seemed trivial since the music that she loved always stemmed purely from talent, regardless of the challenges. She also figured that learning conducting would be useful, as she was also learning composition.
Her intent to pursue conducting solidified in 2008 after she graduated with a Doctorate of Music in Orchestral Conducting from the University of Music in Stuttgart, Germany. Kim conducted the Madrid Symphony Orchestra during the 2008 Lopez-Cobos International Opera Conductors Competition and went on to win the first prize. She said that was the first time she felt a rush of ecstasy while conducting an orchestra because even though she couldn’t communicate with them in their mother tongue, they worked together to create a magical sound that transcended boundaries.
Conductor Kim Eun Sun (SPO)
During a recent interview with local reporters, Kim was all smiles, giving a glimpse of her upbeat and relaxed personality. But she’s different on stage, where the weight of her role as she leads many accomplished musicians is reflected in her quiet yet determined demeanor.
“When coordinating an orchestra, you need to speak concisely and efficiently to ensure a mutual hold on the music,” she noted.
Kim said she always keeps in mind the words of her professor, Choi, as well as those of Herbert von Karajan, an Austrian conductor who was the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic for 34 years.
“My professor once told me that I should keep in mind that the musicians I lead may have played those pieces hundreds of times, even though I might be conducting them for the first time,” Kim said.
“Karajan once said that you can refer to yourself as a conductor only after you’re 50 years old or older,” the 41-year old conductor noted, adding, “I look forward to accumulating enough experience to do so.”
On Thursday and Friday, Kim will lead the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra for two concerts at Lotte Concert Hall in Seoul, which marks her debut as a conductor in Korea. The orchestra, with guest cellist Christian Poltera, will perform Korean composer Kim Texu’s Spin-flip, Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor and Op. 95 “From the New World.”