Twenty Years and Counting

URI has had its share of anniversaries, but none are as musical as the one being observed this summer when the Kingston Chamber Music Festival marks its 20th year.

A series of six evening concerts, a free children’s concert, and four other performances at venues near Kingston will be held over the July 22-Aug. 1 period, drawing thousands of music lovers to the area for one of the country’s most successful chamber music festivals.

Thanks to its founder, violinist David Kim, the festival has grown in stature, quality, and financial success. In the process, it has brought attention and prestige to the URI Music Department and its programs.

As Ronald Lee, Music Department chair, put it, “It gives the Music Department something to toot about.” And yes, there are “toots” from wind instruments at some concerts, but the majority of invited musicians this year are string players.

Kim, the son of Chai Kim, professor emeritus of business administration, is well known in international music circles as concertmaster of one of the world’s best ensembles, the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The idea for a chamber music festival at URI dawned on David Kim on one of his frequent visits to see his parents in Kingston. Kim, a touring musician, fell in love with the bucolic campus and dreamed of offering a music festival of high quality with modest ticket prices that would appeal to people who could not afford some of the area’s more sumptuous summer festivals.

Kim was not born with a violin under his chin, but close to it. By age 3 he was playing one; at 8 he was studying with Dorothy DeLay, who has coached some of the greatest violinists in the world; at 12, he appeared with Itzhak Perlman as the subject of a TV documentary entitled Prodigy. In 1986, Kim, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from The Juilliard School, was the only American violinist to win a prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.

In 1989, Kim launched his dream of an affordable music festival. He received some seed money from the late URI President Edward Eddy and enlisted two other musicians and close friends, cellist Michelle Djokic and pianist Gail Niwa, to help out; they have performed in every festival since then.

By knocking on doors for support, Kim was able to put on three concerts using eight musicians drawn from friendships nurtured at Juilliard and at concert venues. That tradition of employing a combination of old friends with musicians he has discovered in his world travels persists to this day.

In the second year of the festival, Kim started enlisting people from the University community to help plan the event. Today the festival has a 15-member board of directors—all volunteers—and a part-time, paid managing director. As the festival’s artistic director, Kim controls all things musical.

One of those board members is Ron Lee, who recalls that the Music Department became actively involved with the festival partly because of such practical matters as insurance and scheduling. Other board members are President Martin Sadd, professor of mechanical engineering; Treasurer Steve Letcher, professor emeritus of physics; John Grandin, professor of German and director of the International Engineering Program; and Harold Bibb, associate dean of the Graduate School and professor of biological sciences.

“The University has helped the festival with financial support, facility sharing, and program publicity,” says Sadd. “Likewise, the festival has helped the University by attracting large audiences to the Fine Arts Center, thereby bringing positive exposure to URI and its Music Department.”

The recently refurbished Fine Arts Concert Hall, which seats 525, is an ideal size for chamber music. “We do five other festivals in the academic year,” notes Lee, “but of course the Kingston Chamber Music Festival is quite different. It has become a national and international festival that brings a very positive image to URI.”

The festival’s presence helped bring about much-needed renovations to the concert hall from seats, to lights, to a quieter air-handling system. Couple that with convenient free parking and low ticket prices and the venue is a hit— so much so that concerts are now sell-outs.

Now the problem is how to offer more concerts to meet the demand. Scheduling is difficult because musicians are usually booked well in advance and David Kim’s own schedule—including his full-time Philadelphia Orchestra position, other festivals, and the master classes he offers—leaves little room for him to spend time with his wife, Jane, and their two daughters.

It used to be sell-outs occurred only when high profile artists were on the bill such as violinists Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and Sarah Chang and pianists Andrew Litton and Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who all performed at much-reduced fees. But it no longer takes big names to fill the seats. Kim is as adept at choosing programs and performers as he is at fingering his fiddle (a rare one loaned to him by the Philadelphia Orchestra).

The festival features many young musicians whom Kim has met in his travels around the world. As for the music, the festival offers classical and romantic composers with an occasional side trip to more uncommon fare.

Ron Lee says he has seen a change in the demographics of the audiences in the last few years with more young people and students attending. “The programming has helped,” he says, adding “young performers attract young audiences.”

URI has continued to support the festival. Each year, the President’s Office contributes funds, and Dean Winifred Brownell makes sure that one of the concerts is sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences. WRIU, the University radio station, gives lots of on-air support, and the Music Department helps with publicity.

The alliance between the festival and the Music Department has created other benefits, including master classes offered by Kim and two free open rehearsals. A team of URI students helps with festival logistics, and every year a junior who is an outstanding musician from Rhode Island receives a $1,000 award from the festival.

Last year the winner was violinist Sara F. Dillon ’08. The first award (2004) went to trumpet performer Nicholas Jemo ’06, now a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music; the second (2005) went to violinist Emily Chen ’07; and the third (2006) went to violist Naseer Francois Ashraf, who is now studying music composition.

Music Department faculty members who have joined the ranks of performers include pianist Manabu Takasawa and oboist Jane Murray.

Kim has no problem in booking musicians—in the summer southern Rhode Island is a vacationland for beach lovers. The musicians are housed in B&Bs or private homes and relax at the shore, at restaurants, or at nightspots.

For Kim’s part, the festival has become a major accomplishment in a life that is filled with accomplishments. “Someone recently asked me if I ever thought we would make it to 20 years,” relates Kim. “My answer was ‘absolutely—and then some!”

By Rudi Hempe ’62