Ji — pronounced Jee, like gee whiz kid — is a 27-year-old pianist hailed by the Chicago Tribune as “a gifted young pianist who is going places.” He has been praised from a young age for his musical presence and technical command. He has appeared as a soloist with dozens of U.S. Orchestras and the BBC Symphony. He’s performed at the Kennedy Center, Saint Martin’s Abbey church, La Jolla Music Society, San Diego’s Mainly Mozart Festival and many more.
In early 2016, Ji was the star of a national Android commercial titled Monotone, in which he performs Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on two pianos, one that features the usual 88 pitches and one tuned so that each key plays middle C. (Watch it on YouTube!)
Ji-Yong Kim began playing the piano at the age of 5. At 10, he was the youngest pianist to win the New York Philharmonic’s Young Artist Competition, resulting in a performance at Avery Fisher Hall.
In 2017, he signed to Warner Classics as an exclusive recording artist. For his label debut, he has recorded Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” to be released this week. His previous albums are “Bach Exhibition” on the Credia label (2012), and “Lisztomania” for Credia/Universal Music.
Ji will perform twice on behalf of the Florida Keys Concert Association: Monday, Jan. 22 at Marathon’s San Pablo Catholic Church and Tuesday, Jan. 23 at Islamorada Community Church. Doors open at 7 p.m., concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 and are available at the door, at Marathon’s Centennial Bank and online at www.floridakeysconcerts.com.
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What is your favorite period of music to play? I don’t know that I have a preference of era, per se, but Bach is my favorite composer. I do love the impressionist era, though. It’s not something I do well, so this is a case of wanting what we don’t have. But this era was one where people started playing with sound as a whole, by layering it.
Do you ever improvise? I improvise at least an hour or two a day while practicing, but that is considered taboo on stage. But I’ve started wondering about that just recently when I realized that I had been playing the wrong note in a piece I’ve played for a very long time. I discovered it when I was listening to someone else’s recording. If I had still been at Julliard, and my teacher had noticed that, it would have ruined my whole day. And while it’s important to recognize the musical structure we’ve built over the course of centuries, music theory … well, to some extent it’s JUST music.
Any place you’ve yet to travel? I visit a lot of places and would say I’ve been to every single state in this country. I like to learn about people wherever I go. In fact, it’s become a personal research project. I want to acquaint myself with different kinds of people, with varied personal lifestyles — doctors or artists, wealthy or poor, people who grew up in the foster system.
What can you tell us about the album that drops on Jan. 19? This wasn’t going to happen initially. I heard someone on the radio say the other day that “any creative process is not a finished process” and that rang true. Because it’s never done, you just get to the point when time has run out. But I changed my mind and spent time studying the “Goldberg Variations.” Bach wasn’t just a choral master in a Lutheran church, he was more than that. He was trying to convey an emotion with all of his work. It’s a scary project because it requires an immense amount of imagination — it’s more than 60 minutes long and I can’t play it mundane. In fact, it tied back into my research project. When I was thinking about what all people need. The answer is empathy and empathy is something that is so rare these days. I wanted to tie this message to the album, to communicate that through music.
Any modern pieces you like to play? Well, I guess electronic music. On a keyboard, I can create a whole song.
What kind of music do you NOT like? I really don’t like scream metal; I’m not a metal guy.
If you weren’t a pianist, what would you do for a living? I’m pretty certain I would have been an interior designer or a carpenter. I like being handsy and making things. I just moved into a new apartment and the pieces that I want are so expensive!
What’s the largest audience you’ve ever played for? 10,000.
Do you get nervous before a performance? No, no, no, no. It’s a calm. But, my first festival gig of mainstream music, I was just dying. And the show went bad, too.
Will you spend a couple extra days in the Keys? Yes, it’s my birthday weekend. A couple of my friends are flying down and the plan is to just relax. The last time I was in the Keys I was very young — 15 years old, I think.
— Sara Matthis