Celebrating Music and Heritage with Michael Jinsoo Lim

As part of PNB’s celebration of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) artists in our community, PNB’s concertmaster Michael Jinsoo Lim has written about his parents, his connections to music through them, and his professional journey to PNB. Below is the first essay of his two-part series for the PNB Blog.

Violinist Michael Jinsoo Lim has served as Concertmaster of the PNB Orchestra since 2009; he is also co-founder of the award-winning Corigliano Quartet, performing at venues such as Carnegie Hall, Weill Recital Hall, and the Kennedy Center. The ensemble’s CD, featuring works by John Corigliano was honored as one of The New Yorker’s Top Ten Classical Recordings of the Year. Mr. Lim attended Indiana University, where he studied with the legendary Josef Gingold, and the Juilliard School, where he taught as an assistant to the Juilliard String Quartet.

By Michael Jinsoo Lim

When I was a young boy, I hated practicing the violin. I enjoyed playing it, and I loved performing. Though I knew the value of practicing, I just didn’t want to do it. There’s a Far Side cartoon, by the great Gary Larsen, that captures how I (and I imagine many other violin-playing kids) felt. A mailman is being attacked by three cute, gleeful puppies, while inside the house, a sad-faced dog holding a violin, music stand beside him, looks out the window longingly. For me, growing up in basketball-obsessed Indiana, I spent my after-school hours inside practicing Kreutzer etudes, all the while wishing I was playing hoops at the elementary school playground with my friends.

My mother, Sun Boo Lim, was my first violin teacher. A self-proclaimed “Tiger Mom,” she made sure I practiced. At times, it seemed like a battle, but now, I am eternally grateful to her for the discipline and hard work she instilled in me. And as I look back on their lives, I see more clearly why my parents raised me, my sister Carol and my brother David, the way they did, and how important it was to them for us to have a strong work ethic and a good education. My parents went through such extreme hardships in their early years, that they became hard-wired and single-minded for survival; this will to survive colored everything they taught us, and everything they wanted for us in our lives.

In her youth, with the Korean War raging on around her, my mother would practice her violin in the bathtub, to the unfortunate accompaniment of the sounds of wartime destruction. When my mom came to America, she continued to persevere. She was accepted into and studied at the prestigious New England Conservatory, and went on to become a successful teacher and among the first wave of proponents in America of the famed Suzuki Method for Violin.

As a boy during the war, my father, Henry Lim, sold cigarettes, chewing gum and bibles to US soldiers to help support his family. He came to America with no money and limited experience with the English language. My dad told me a story about his days as a student at Oklahoma State University. He needed to work multiple jobs to afford school, and he had to juggle this with a difficult and time-demanding course load. There was a class he was in that he knew he couldn’t attend if he wanted to keep his jobs. He approached the professor, to explain his situation and to ask: if he couldn’t come to class, could he still pass the course by doing well on the exams? The professor told him that without participating in class, he would need to get extremely high marks on the exams, and further, in his opinion, there was no way my dad would be able to get those scores without attending the lectures, but he could try if he wanted. My dad never went to the class again, aced the exams and passed the class. He went on to get a PhD from Northwestern University and had a long and notable career as a scientist and professor.

So I practiced. And practiced. And got pretty good at the violin. Early on in high school, I thought I would eventually have a career as a scientist, or become a doctor, as my father had hoped. By the time I was 16, though, I knew I had to be a musician. A big turning point for me was when I successfully auditioned for the class of Josef Gingold, one of the world’s foremost violin teachers, at Indiana University. Before I studied with Mr. Gingold, I liked the violin. After Mr. G, I LOVED the violin. He helped me develop a true relationship with music.

When I was a senior in college, I was concertmaster of one of the school orchestras, and one of our performances was playing for the IU Ballet. We did excerpts from Swan Lake, and I remember playing the White Swan violin solo from Tchaikovsky’s score, and thinking that there was really something extra special about this music. One of my classmates (a fellow student of Gingold) came backstage afterwards and said, “Your sound is just perfect for ballet. The vibrato and phrasing…it’s just exactly suited to the dancing.” Of course, I didn’t know at the time that my career would eventually lead me to PNB.

(A fun side-note: during grad school at IU, I needed a course to fill an elective requirement for my degree. I saw that ballet was one of the approved courses, so I took a beginning ballet class. Apparently, for a beginner, I had a good jeté, as the teacher had me demonstrate in front of the other students! Learning a little bit of ballet has made me constantly in awe of the magical things our PNB dancers do, all while making it look effortless.)

After Indiana, I went to Juilliard, as a member of the Corigliano Quartet. We had been selected as the school’s graduate quartet-in-residence, a position that allowed us to learn from the famed Juilliard Quartet, while also teaching chamber music to undergrads. (Another fun side-note: while at Juilliard, one of the favorite things for me and my wife, violist/composer Melia Watras, was to attend New York City Ballet performances. We were fans of Peter Boal, then NYCB principal dancer, now PNB artistic director. Little did I know that I would eventually work for Peter’s company in Seattle!) A large and meaningful portion of my career was spent in the Corigliano Quartet. We travelled, performed, recorded and taught. Playing in a string quartet is all-consuming. It is extremely rewarding to play quartets at a high level, but it can be a difficult lifestyle to sustain. When it came time to move on, my first job outside of the quartet was in the American Ballet Theatre Orchestra in New York. We did Swan Lake a number of times during my years at ABT. As a member of the first violin section, I had the best seat in the house to listen to concertmaster Ron Oakland’s beautiful violin solos. 

When my wife Melia was hired as professor of viola at the University of Washington, I kept my job at ABT, and split time between New York and Seattle. In our first year in Seattle, we attended a performance of PNB. That evening, I told Melia that if there was one job I wish I could have in Seattle, it would be concertmaster of PNB. Of course, concertmaster jobs don’t open up that frequently, and I couldn’t have know at that time that PNB would be looking for a new concertmaster five years later.

PNB had each of the three finalists for the concertmaster position come in to perform. The ballet that I was asked to play was Swan Lake. This was the first ballet I played, back in Indiana  years ago, and a work that taught me so much about ballet music when I was at ABT. I am so grateful that my path, which seemed to frequently intersect with ballet, eventually led me to find a home at PNB. 

Through the lessons I learned from my parents, and the sacrifices they made, I was fortunate to be in a position to work hard, learn from the best, and to express myself through music. They helped me expand my family to include friends, artists, teachers, students and my Pacific Northwest Ballet colleagues.

Featured photo: Michael Jinsoo Lim performing Cacti onstage with PNB dancers, photo © Angela Sterling.

Photos: Michael playing violin with his mother, Sun Boo Lim.
Michael with Josef Gingold at Indiana University, photo © Henry C. Lim.