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What was performing at Carnegie Hall like?

Updated: Feb 1

I write this in my hotel room on Jeju Island, South Korea, listening to a wild ocean. The rainy season is about to start in Korea. The humid air with a warm summer breeze feels strangely familiar, a sensation from my youth. However, this stormy weather won't affect my tour in Korea starting today. It is hard to believe that I am on the other side of the world after having such an intense week in NYC performing at the Carnegie Hall just days ago.

"What was performing at Carnegie Hall like?"

Firstly let me rewind to the times before playing at the Carnegie. As fancy and exciting as it may sound, preparing for this concert wasn't an easy task physically, mentally, and emotionally. Aside from daily strategically practicing each piece for hours, I had to work through my chatty mind that distracted my focus. The name Carnegie would make any musician nervous about standing on such a historical stage. I worked hard for my mind to be in a space where I would be grounded and ready to accept whatever would be. I perform all the time, but it always amazes me that performing never gets easier over time. Just like life, the new day has challenged me to a renewed approach to what is important to me as a pianist and as a person to prepare for the upcoming day.

Focus. Gratitude. Letting go. Flow. Accepting. Joy. Love. Gift. Celebration. Grounding. Openness. Now.

These are the words I collected to remind me to recenter myself over the months of preparation for the concert. Each word came to me at a random insightful moment, and then I practiced holding the word in the palm of my hand to keep it alive within me.

The day of the performance had the worst air quality on record in New York due to a wildfire from Canada. The city was full of smoke at two o'clock in the afternoon, making everything look yellow and fuzzy. Walking through the crowds to my rehearsal in an unusually dark light at that hour, I felt like watching a documentary about a natural disaster in slow motion. Noticing my unease, I said to myself "I am going to play at the Carnegie tonight. I am sure there will be some people who will make it. Nothing can stop me now. Stay calm and focused."

Stepping into the hall after going through many layers of security, I was surprised to see the hall again. It was gorgeous and elegant, or perhaps better than I remembered. Then, with a hint of nervousness and excitement, I sat down and played several pieces on the shining Steinway on the stage. I instantly felt a goosebump on the arms and said to myself 'Ah, this piano is amazing. It can do anything I could ask for, from a delicate velvety tone of various colors to thunderous sound. The hall is just big enough to hug the sound, giving back the warmth of the space. This could well be the best piano I've ever played.'

I've experienced many wonderful pianos, but often found that some things are short of any piano on stage. I've worked hard in many concerts to cover the weaknesses of the piano and make the most out of its strengths. Because my expectation of the instrument is so high, in the end pianos often seem to produce a sound far beyond their initially evaluated capacity. But it is certainly rare, possibly the only time ever, that the piano does not limit me in any way. On top of that, when paired with a good acoustic hall and the significance of sharing the moment with an appreciative audience in a space like the Carnegie, it is nearly an impossible combination to duplicate. As a side note, the piano on which I performed at my Carnegie debut in 2017 wasn't at this level. This piano is just two years young and in its best shape. If I return to the Carnegie, the piano could be different again. But that night last week was the best I could ever hope for as a pianist.

When I finally walked on stage towards an enthusiastic crowd that night, I spotted familiar faces who had traveled from San Diego and mom from Korea. But the majority of the audiences were New Yorkers whom I didn't know. An hour and a half long concert felt like 5 minutes to me - a total focus on existence. During the performance I kept reminding myself to stay in the moment, let go of even my wish to do my best, and be open and curious. As the night went on, I felt I could lean on the moment more and more firmly. I know that the pressure of the weight of the space, the Carnegie, would not go away no matter when I played there. But I am the proudest that I could soar above the weight of the significance of the concert in the end.

The next morning an official review in the New York Classical Review came out. Rick Perdian titled it 'The musical and personal are closely twined with pianist Jeeyoon Kim,' mentioning 'impeccable technique, consummate musicianship, and communicative skills as a pianist.' Another review from the Russian reviewer, Leonid Goldin, in Russian, wrote 'the pianist’s performing skills produced very strong impression...The audience in Carnegie Hall does not always give a standing ovation even at the end of the concert, this time they got up after almost every piece, in my opinion, a well-deserved assessment.'

So to make a long answer to the question what was the Carnegie like short I say this: Looking at the crowds on the stage after the second encore as I walked backstage, the one word that rang to me was thankful; I was thankful for this night, thankful for friends who were there for me, thankful for enthusiastic crowds, thankful for the opportunity, thankful for the piano, thankful for music, thankful for my drive to keep pushing, thankful for my health, and thankful to be alive at that moment. It was certainly a high point in my life filled with gratitude.

I hope I have given you glimpses of my experience. Were you there? I am already looking forward to sharing another musical journey with you.


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