The Man Behind the Music

The Atlantic Symphony Orchestra celebrates 20 years with conductor Jin Kim.

By Judy Enright | Photography by Jack Foley and courtesy of the ASO

Jin Kim is a man with a mission. The music director and conductor of the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra (ASO) has spent the last 20 years working to make classical music accessible and exciting for audiences on the South Shore and beyond. The key to unlocking the magic of the music, he says, is to watch a live performance

“It’s like going to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park,” says Kim. “You might get a better view of the action from your couch at home, but there’s a reason why people choose to sit in those uncomfortable chairs. It’s about being part of the experience.”

jimkim_ao_9772_rjFor ASO audience members, the experience begins as soon as they enter the concert hall at Thayer Academy Center for the Arts in Braintree or unfold their beach chairs on the lawn at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham for a summertime sunset concert. Seated a short distance from an elite ensemble of professional musicians, viewers can watch as fingers flutter over strings and keys and marvel at the way Kim masterfully guides the action. “You feel a wave of music washing over you,” says Kim. “It’s high art and it’s very accessible. Those who don’t think classical music is for them are urged to go to a live orchestral concert and feel the immediate power and energy all around. It’s something that can’t be replicated on a digital device.”

ASO musicians are hand-picked by Kim and principal members of the orchestra. They come from all over the world, though most live, study and perform with other ensembles in Boston. The resulting orchestra is made up of young but seasoned professionals who hail from some of the world’s top conservatories. Members have served as fellows at Tanglewood, Aspen, Schleswig-Holstein and Pacific Music Festivals, and have gone on to secure positions at major symphony orchestras around the world, including the National Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre de Paris, Israel Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Boston Symphony Orchestra.

While members of the ASO perform throughout the year, the season officially starts with Opening Night in October and includes a series of performances at Thayer Academy, as well as occasional events held at more intimate venues. One major performance, the Masterworks Gala, is held in March at Jordan Hall in Boston.

Much of the credit for the excellence of these performances can be laid squarely at Kim’s feet. Hired when he was in his 20s, he is still happily waving his conductor’s baton with the ASO 20 years later. At the time, hiring such a young music director was a bold move for a local orchestra—but clearly, it was also astute.

“During my time on the board, I have developed a deep sense of respect for the work that Jin does and how he works,” says Karen Thompson, president of the ASO board of directors. “What we have in Jin is more than a conductor; we have a strong strategic partner to serve with excellence and help us reach our vision of deepening community involvement and maintaining sustainable growth.”

The seeds for the ASO were planted 70 years ago with the birth of the Hingham Civic Orchestra, which was restructured as the Hingham Symphony 50 years later. During the 2006/2007 season, it was renamed the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra to more accurately reflect its role as a professional orchestra serving the entire Greater Boston and South Shore region.

Kim’s journey to become the conductor of the ASO was a long and winding road. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would become a professional musician, much less a conductor,” says Kim.

Born in Seoul, South Korea, he moved to Minnesota when he was 11. “It was a culture shock. I moved to a new country and didn’t speak a word of English,” says Kim. He did, however, play the piano and was expected to practice four to six hours a day. “I’m pretty sure my mother just wanted to keep me occupied,” says Kim.

By the time he reached high school, all that practicing had Kim feeling burnt out and rebellious. “I made a deal with my mother that if I won this piano competition, she would let me quit music and play football,” says Kim. Not surprisingly, he did win the competition and proceeded to serve as a benchwarmer his junior year. When the time came for Kim to go to college he opted to study philosophy and history and had plans to pursue public policy or law.

It didn’t take long, however, for music to become part of his life again. He joined a professional choir and became fascinated with musical performances, the stage, musicians and the group effort of it all. “It really just clicked and I thought, ‘This is something really special,’” says Kim.  “I was making a living as a freelance professional musician when I realized that this form of art—bringing music to the people—was a community service as well, much like registering voters and helping those in need.”

Two years after college, Kim decided to enroll at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York to pursue conducting. He came to Boston in 1995 to join the artist diploma program at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. This prestigious program–the equivalent of a fellowship–is designed to support the professional careers of young artists. When the music director vacancy at the Hingham orchestra was announced, more than 50 candidates were considered, and Kim prevailed.

When Kim was hired, the orchestra transitioned from a volunteer to a professional model. “We set the bar really high,” says Kim. “We are blessed to serve as a stepping stone for professional musicians and we attract a good mix of generations.”jimkim_ao_9937

Kim and the ASO make an effort to host unique musical events that enhance their personal connection with the community. From their signature Classical Uncorked or On Tap to small ensembles at area art galleries, these intimate performances offer a glimpse into the artist’s lives and insight into the music they perform. The orchestra also hosts an annual concerto competition for young professional artists. “We are not an organization that simply shows up and puts on performances,” says Thompson. “We actively create opportunities for our audiences to get to know the music and the musicians better and expand their appreciation of classical music.”

“I try to avoid [making it feel] like the educational concerts I used to fall asleep at as a kid,” says Kim, who makes an effort to interact with the audience. “I’m there to guide things along and break the barrier between the audience and the performers. Before we play through a piece, I’ll explain a little bit about the reasons I chose the repertoire and offer pointers as to what people should listen for,” says Kim. The audience also plays a role in the energy of the night. “Audiences forget that the musicians on stage can also see them,” says Kim. “I’m like the conduit between the two, literally conducting energy to and from the audience.”

It is this sense of unwavering commitment to quality music and community involvement that has led the ASO to success. “We are still young as professional orchestras go, but we are maturing,” says Thompson. “We want more people familiar with what we provide.”

When he’s not conducting, Kim spends most of his time looking over scores and preparing repertoires for upcoming performances. “As a professional musician you’re often on the road,” says Kim. “But I just don’t do well with suitcases.” That’s good news for the ASO.

On Saturday, November 19, The Atlantic Symphony Orchestra will host a special celebration to recognize the people who make the orchestra possible and raise money for the upcoming season. The Take a Bow Gala will be held at 6 p.m. at the Hatherly Club, 663 Hatherly Road, Scituate.

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