Vantage Music | February 2019 | London
In February of this year, Vantage Music paid a visit to John & Arthur Beare (“Beare’s”) in London and met Steven Smith, Co-Managing Director of J & A Beare, and his wife, violinist and professor at the Royal Academy of Music So-Ock Kim, who is also the Artistic Coordinator for Beare’s International Violin Society, the charitable arm of Beare’s. We are interested in knowing more about the fine instrument expertise and also So-Ock as an artist.
~ Part I – on Beare’s ~
VM : Your father was managing a violin dealing business and you were studying the violin. Were you interested in the business early on?
SS: Yes, I was always interested in instruments. I was brought up in Nottingham with violins everywhere in the house. My father serviced many of the local instruments around the Nottingham area and nearby towns. My uncle, his business partner, was a dealer in London involved in the more expensive instruments. From a young age, I was already travelling to London with my father and experienced aspects of the dealing world.
VM: Did you learn the violin with your parents?
SS: Yes, I practised with my father. My mother, a professional violinist, was working in the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and was away from home during the week. We had a family quartet with my sister who was a fine cellist. My father, being an amateur viola player, was often in trouble with my mother for making mistakes!
I made a violin when I was fourteen whilst taking violin-making lessons. However, I never finished it and was at that time focused mainly on playing. At eighteen I went to study at the Royal Northern College of Music.
VM: In one of the previous interviews, you mentioned the Kronberg Academy. Could you tell us more about it?
SS: The Kronberg Academy is a cultural institution in a small town called Kronberg, just half an hour from Frankfurt, Germany. It attracts amazing young talents from all over the world from the age of sixteen.
SO: The Academy students are comprised of prizewinners of many international competitions and it nurtures young musicians on the cusp of their careers to collaborate and study with incredible mentors and artists. Previous students are now renowned concert artists, including violinists Vilde Frang, Alexander Sitkovetsky, Alina Ibragimova and cellists István Várdai, Kian Soltani and Pablo Ferrández to name but a few. Artists such as Simon Rattle, Christoph Eschenbach, Tabea Zimmermann, Gidon Kremer, András Schiff and Steven Isserlis come to Kronberg to work with the students and also perform with them in concert.
SS: We have a partnership with the Academy. It is such a magnet of talent; we love the association and try to lend instruments to as many students as we can.
SO: We met cellist Kian Soltani when he was a student at Kronberg and instantly loved his playing. He made his debut recording for Deutsche Grammophon on a Strad cello that we were able to lend him through our loan society. He played many concerts and big debuts on the cello worldwide, and we have now found a sponsor to lend it to him for the longer term. We loaned Pablo Ferrández a cello for his debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with Zubin Mehta. Bruno Philippe, a French cellist who was recently featured on the front page of the Strad magazine, borrowed a cello from Beare’s for a competition, but the owner allowed us to lend the cello for longer, so he has had the use of this cello for several years now.
VM: Can you tell us about Beare’s International Violin Society, the charitable arm of your business?
SS: We set this up about ten years ago. There is a great need for many talented musicians at the start of their career to have access to good instruments, so we wanted to create something more official as a medium to attract more patrons.
SO: For many years we loaned instruments to players through the company. When I was young, I was fortunate enough to borrow several instruments from Beare’s. During the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) Shell Competition, I was given the use of a wonderful Goffriller violin which helped me enormously. We decided to set something up formally to help more players as there are so many in need and we have a long waiting list.
SS: We previously loaned Janine Jansen a Stradivari violin for some time which developed into a two-year project. A Norwegian Foundation, Dextra Musica bought the violin for her to use long-term for the rest of her career. We have developed relationships with many patrons who are very interested in helping our Society’s artists.
SO: We still need many more new patrons to be part of our Society – people who own instruments already or people who will acquire one and allow us to lend to players.
VM: So how do you select those young musicians who will be lucky enough to use these instruments?
SS: I’d say by talent generally, where they really need a better instrument for the level of work they are doing or to help them at the start of their careers.
SO: We try wherever we can, but it is not always possible to lend to everyone who asks. Demand is greater than supply and we have a long list of players from young gifted students to professionals. As the Artistic Coordinator, I’m involved in the selection process between patrons and performers. Depending on the owner and the instrument, sometimes we are allowed to choose the player, but each case is different.
VM: So how many of them are in the hands of these musicians, and what kinds of instruments are they using?
SS: There are many different situations. There is a wonderful gentleman who set up the Harrison Franck Foundation and decided to acquire instruments very specifically for students at postgraduate music college level. He bought quite a large number of stringed instruments, around forty or fifty, which we look after – we source the instruments and look after the foundation for him. These instruments are now part of his loan scheme.
SO: In our Society, we have a wide range of instruments from French instruments, 20th Century Italian, to Stradivari’s.
SS: These are often instruments owned by our patrons to whom we may have sold in the past. We encourage them to loan them through us.
SO: For example, there are several Guadagnini violins that have been on long term loan to numerous young musicians. Recently, the Salzburg-based Amatis Piano Trio, BBC New Generation Artists, approached us and we loaned them a Vuillaume violin and cello.
The violinist Baiba Skride has borrowed a Stradivari for the past few years through wonderful patrons of our Society as well as the violinist Emmanuel Tjeknavorian who recently made his debut recording for Sony.
SS: We are currently lending a Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù owned by two of our patrons to the Shanghai Quartet. We helped them make their Wigmore Hall debut for the Royal Society of Musicians recently. That was a charitable concert and all the proceeds went to musicians with financial needs for their medical conditions. The Quartet had a year, playing on a Stradivari, a Guarneri del Gesù, a Stradivari cello and a Goffriller viola. We are trying to extend that for another year.
SO: In addition, we also make many short-term loans. For example, Vadim Repin needed a violin for a few months, while his violin was being serviced. We also support many up-and-coming artists: we lent some violins to the Arod Quartet, who are also BBC New Generation Artists, for their debut recording. There is a broad list of instruments – Guarneri, Storioni, Baldantoni and Stradivari – on long-term loans.
We always encourage anybody who has an interest in classical music, enjoys the arts, and has some means behind them to purchase and lend their instruments. Our patrons have enjoyed watching the careers of the players develop, going to their concerts as well as hearing the instruments they own and knowing how much the artists appreciate them.
SS: At the same time, it’s a very decent investment. It works very nicely – they are giving something to the arts in a charitable way and at the same time, instruments are actually growing assets.
SO: It isn’t that easy to find generous patrons but the ones we have found are wonderful people with whom we and the artists have developed strong friendships. Sometimes, owners approach us, or if somebody buys an instrument from us, we’ll ask them to lend them through our Society.
SS: What we do find is that when somebody does it once, they generally do it again as they enjoy it so much.
VM: In one of the interviews with Simon Morris published in 2014, he wasn’t aware of a single Strad being sold in mainland China – has this situation changed now?
SS: There should be quite a few now. But it’s still in its infancy. There is a lot of interest in China. In Hong Kong, we have a new partnership with Premiere Performances (PPHK). Through that platform, we are already meeting people with great interests in supporting artists. The music festival was wonderful. Hong Kong and the Far East are growing and thriving economies, people are very interested on the investment side. Our interest is also very much on the cultural side – finding people interested in music and investment works terribly well. We are less keen on selling purely speculatively and much more focussed on ensuring that the instruments fall into the right hands. From a business perspective, we would like to continue the relationship with artists and patrons as ultimately, the instruments may come back to us again for resale.
VM: Did artists in the Festival play your instruments?
SO: Yes, the wonderful Dover Quartet performed on our instruments for the whole week and played superbly.
SS: We are thrilled to have the connection with Andrea Fessler and the Premiere festival. Andrea is an amazing lady, having built up PPHK over the last ten years. She’s very knowledgeable, has tremendous energy and is really passionate about music. I have known her for a long time, since she and her husband Davide helped the violinist Ning Feng with an instrument, with which we assisted. This partnership is something new and very exciting for us.
Andrea knows well what a difference a decent instrument makes for an artist and their career. She very much encourages people to help artists in the same vein.
SO: It’s not only a great investment but also a significant contribution to culture and history, as well as developing a credible relationship with a growing and emerging artist. It’s very gratifying and satisfying for the investor.
SS: The festival has adopted the name “Beare’s Premiere Music Festival”. It’s a wonderful promotion for the company and has become a great platform for us in the Far East.
The music quality level is astonishingly high with wonderful musicians. Jimmy Lin (Cho-Liang) does such an amazing job as an artistic director and this year he invited the wonderful Dover Quartet along with Yura Lee, Avi Avital, Paul Huang and many others.
VM: What other music festivals do you sponsor or partner as well?
SS: We are involved in many different things. We sponsored the Menuhin Competition, the Kronberg Academy as mentioned before, and the Herrenchiemsee Festival in Germany. We also have another plan in 2020/ 2021 for Germany for a chamber music festival. In Italy, we supported the Pietrasanta In Concerto Festival. In Korea, there is the Seoul Spring Festival and the Great Mountain Festival which we have supported for many years now along with some other music competitions.
SO: There is also the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival as well as our collaborations with the Manchester Camerata and Academy of St Martin in the Fields which Simon Morris, Steven’s business partner, is very much involved with.
SS: We support the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra with instruments and we just went to their 20th anniversary celebration. There was a special concert with Anne Sophie Mutter, Maxim Vengerov and Martha Argerich all performing in the same concert. We are advisors to the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and the Royal Society of Musicians. In short, we are involved in a very broad variety of institutions and festivals.
VM: Is it true that the more you play on the violin, the better it sounds? What are the common issues with these instruments?
SS: When you pick up a violin that has been sitting for a while in the safe, it needs an hour or two to come alive. And when you take it for a week, it feels easier and more responsive, so it’s good for them to be played. Sitting in a safe doesn’t do them any harm; but they do tend to sound better once they are played on for a few weeks.
SO: Also, in many respects, the player does influence the sound, especially great players. If you really understand how to play the instrument, for example, bringing out all the overtones, you can transform the instruments. An instrument will sound completely different from one player to another.
VM: What would you recommend to somebody who is interested in what the Society is doing and would like to be involved?
SS: If somebody is interested, a great way to learn more would be to visit our premises in London but anyone can email and get in touch with us through the Society’s email. We have an extraordinary history within our beautiful premises: the walls covered with our collection of signed photographs of historically great artists, original manuscripts etc. Of course, we house our own Beare’s records, but also Wurlitzer and Hill Records going back to the 1870s’, with every purchase and sale the company made. These handwritten volumes and diaries are fascinating history. Menuhin and Kreisler visited Beare’s regularly. There isn’t history for every violin but on the more important ones such as Stradivari and Guarneri instruments, there is often a great and comprehensive history. We have considerable sales information for different eras, such as the 1950s’ ,1980s’ and now the 2000s. Such knowledge is difficult to obtain unless you sold the instruments yourself, which we did. We can offer very clear evidence of how the market works and how the instruments have performed historically as financial investments. That combined with the history becomes a passion for people. And if you are lending to some of the great modern artists, they will have an influence on the future value. In the past it might have been Vieuxtemps or Ysaÿe, Kreisler, Menuhin or Stern. Perhaps now it’s Janine Jansen or Joshua Bell, who knows? But what’s certain is that future generations will crave for the artistic histories which is all part of the musical and romantic story.
~ Part II – on So-Ock Kim ~
Here, Steven left for another appointment and violinist Eric Wang joined the interview. He has befriended So-Ock in his school days.
VM: Would you like to tell us something about your music learning when you were young? Was violin the instrument of your choice?
SO: My mother brought home a violin one day, a year after I had begun piano lessons. She liked the arts and studied painting herself but for some reason she never tried to interest me in painting. I started the piano at five, violin at six and entered the Purcell School at the age of eight.
VM: Did you participate in concerts around that time?
SO: Yes, I was given a lot of concert opportunities from a young age. My first concert with an orchestra was at the Royal Festival Hall (RFH) when I was nine, playing the finale of the Tchaikovsky concerto. Every Saturday, children’s concerts were held at RFH with a symphony orchestra and I was asked to do it twice.
VM: Did you enjoy that?
SO: I think so, but it was such a long time ago! When I was twelve or thirteen, I won the Emily Anderson prize from the Royal Philharmonic Society, and then the Maisie Lewis Young Artist’s Award which led to my Wigmore hall debut.
I then won the LSO Shell Competition and a lot of work followed – concertos, playing with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Seoul Philharmonic, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, and many others.
VM: How did you feel about winning the Shell Competition?
SO: It was a shock. I was fifteen and didn’t expect anything. My only hope was to play with the LSO and I didn’t think about winning: I didn’t even consider it a competition! Somehow, I got through the rounds which involved chamber music, orchestral excerpts, concerto and recital repertoire.
Sadly, the competition is no longer available which is such a shame as it was such an amazing opportunity for young students to play with such a great orchestra.
VM: What did you play at that time?
SO: In the final round, I played the big solo excerpt from Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben and then the first movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I had never played an orchestral excerpt before, so I had practised quite a lot at the time. During the rehearsal, we played it through once and then the conductor said it was perfect, so we didn’t really rehearse it.
When it came to the actual concert, I was quite nervous during the Strauss: I was so upset that I didn’t play it as well as I knew I could. By the time I played the Tchaikovsky, I just wanted to have a good time and enjoy the moment. From the moment the first violins entered, I was enthralled by the delicacy of the orchestra, and after the exposition when the full orchestra plays the theme and takes over from the violin, it was one of the best moments I have felt on stage, and that sound remains in my memory to this day.
VM: I remember you were with YCAT – did you audition as part of a trio group?
SO: No, I didn’t audition as a trio member – the trio had a violinist and was with YCAT already. At the time, the violinist left the group to lead the Australian String Quartet and I received a call from the cellist Li-Wei. I had met him once in Prussia Cove when I was thirteen. We sight-read the Schubert Cello Quintet together and I had performed in one solo concert, but we barely knew each other. Then he called me six years later and said he remembered my playing and asked me if I would join his piano trio. I had never even played a piano trio before, but I knew he was a wonderful cellist, so we quickly got together and played our first concert at the Wigmore Hall broadcast live on BBC radio 3.
A year later, I auditioned as a soloist for YCAT and was on their roster as a soloist and trio member.
VM: Speaking of Li-Wei, did you perform with him at the Beare’s Premiere Music Festival just recently?
SO: Yes, it was with Li-Wei, the Dover Quartet, Lise Berthaud and Tianwa Yang playing Louis Spohr’s “Double Quartet” – it was a lot of fun.
VM: Do you still perform a lot these days?
SO: Unfortunately, not as much as I used to but I’m trying to play a little bit more again. I miss making music as it isn’t the same when you are teaching although it is rewarding to help students. I do play some chamber music and I have played a few concertos here and there. I have a genetic problem with my joints and tendons in the hands and I had an operation many years ago that affected my shoulder. I was in pain all the time and that became too much of a problem for me to play regularly. However, I am hoping to find a way to manage to play more and I have been seeking medical advice and things are improving.
VM: Even when you were young?
SO: Yes, it was the same condition, but I wasn’t diagnosed till much later. When you are young, you are more flexible and can play through pain without realising the damage that’s being caused.
I’m careful with my students: the moment they feel that something is wrong physically or if they have pain, I send them to a doctor and tell them to stop playing. I wasn’t given the right advice when I was younger and was often told I was imagining the problems as it didn’t sound like there was anything wrong in the playing itself. Had I begun then to build up muscles and correct all the alignment issues, maybe I would not have had to stop playing for so long. Now, I try to exercise every day to avoid pain, and my son who has similar problems has to do the same.
E: She even ran a Yoga class! I joined it for a bit. That was tough!
SO: I did for a while. But I wasn’t teaching the class; I had a trainer to guide us. The way we move and breathe with the music is so important. A lot of the principles in yoga are very similar to playing so I try to encourage my students to understand how to be more in tune with their breath, body and mind. I’m still learning it myself!
VM: Would you like to share some interesting stories for live performances?
SO: There was a time when I was very ill: I just had an emergency operation which ruined my shoulder. I had eleven or so trio concerts within fourteen days. In between, I had a performance of the Penderecki violin concerto in Poland. Before the operation, I was sent the music from the publishers and learned the piece. I received a call from a friend while on the trio tour who sent me a link of a recording that Maestro Penderecki particularly liked of the concerto. I started listening on the train heading north towards Scotland… but I didn’t recognise the music at all! It then dawned on me that I had learnt the wrong concerto which was absolutely terrifying because it was five or six days before the concert, and we were in the middle of nowhere in Scotland, travelling to a different venue every day. It was the most stressful few days, just trying to organise a courier to send the music to the next location and somehow trying to learn it on a train. I couldn’t practice much due to the trio concerts and the pain but luckily, I am a very quick learner! I didn’t tell anybody before the concert what had happened and soldiered on but apparently, the concert went well, and I eventually had the courage to tell Maestro Penderecki. His reply was, “Well, let’s play the other one you learnt together, I will conduct next time.” We didn’t quite manage to perform the first concerto, but we did play the Szymanowski concerto together soon after!
On another occasion, I was playing the Bruch concerto with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra one night, and the next day, I was scheduled to play the Tchaikovsky concerto with Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. I hadn’t managed to play through the Tchaikovsky before the concert as I had to be careful not to overplay in case my joints flared up, so I focused on the Bruch and expected a run through of the Tchaikovsky on the day of the concert as scheduled. But lo and behold, half of the orchestra were stuck on the motorway in Manchester and Vasily didn’t want to rehearse with just a few players and decided that there would be no rehearsal, which was terrifying as it was my debut with the orchestra. I thought, that was it, I would never be asked to come back. Steven was also there, very nervous, and he couldn’t even look at me during the performance. But to my surprise, the audience in Leeds Town Hall kept clapping and the leader said I had to play an encore and apparently it went well. The orchestra asked me to perform three more concertos after that. Sometimes, a stressful situation can turn into a positive experience!
VM: What do you think the challenges are as a professional musician?
SO: Oh, where to start? It is already a challenge to learn an instrument, and to find the right teacher to teach the correct principals and fundamentals. At the same time, one has to learn the fundamentals of music, rhythm, harmony, genres, styles and how to interpret the notes and project them on the instrument.
Then you have to put them together and learn how to perform and how to prepare for performances. There is so much involved: hours of study and dedication and mental and physical preparation towards a concert. Even after becoming a professional musician, it is still a constant challenge to continue to evolve as an artist, to learn how to manage a career, one’s time and finding the right balance.
I always encourage people to take lessons and play to people at whatever stage of their career. It’s so important to have great mentors and people whom you can always turn to for advice and play to.
VM: How has been your teaching at the RAM?
SO: I have been teaching at RAM for six years. I officially started a month before I gave birth to my son! I only took two weeks off despite it being a difficult birth and started teaching again immediately as my students had auditions and needed help.
VM: Do you have a lot of students there?
SO: It depends on the year and how many I feel I can manage as I can’t take on everybody. I try to keep my class as small as I can so I can focus on each individual student. This year I have 5 students at RAM and two students from Cambridge University who study under the CAMRAM scheme .
VM: How about other private teaching commitments?
SO: I also have private students that I see, sometimes often, sometimes occasionally, ranging from former students, students who just want some advice before a competition or audition and even professional players who just want a pair of ears and some advice. I’m less keen to teach very young children. I will listen to them, but I often recommend them to other teachers. But if they are really exceptional and I feel I am the right teacher for them, I will make an exception.
E: You did it before for the Korean girl who went to Curtis?
SO: At that time, I was associated with Millfield School and they were offering nearly full scholarships. I brought over two young students who were fourteen and sixteen from Korea and as the school provided lessons for them and allowed them to come to my home weekly, we were able to make it work. They both developed well over the years and were hard working and very dedicated. I am in touch with both students and see them regularly as they come back for lessons.
VM: Did you help her with a violin?
SO: When she participated in the BBC young musician of the year competition string final and Curtis audition, we did lend her something for a short period as she was able to handle a fine instrument and her playing level warranted it. Generally, people think that all my students will have access to our instruments – but not at all! Only if the students’ playing level merits it and if it is for a big concert or competition or recording would we then approach an owner.
In general, we’re very impartial when it comes to the loans. It has to do purely with talent and ability, not where they are from and, of course, it depends if the patron is happy to do so.
VM: If you look back, would you do what you are doing, concertizing, making music?
SO: I think I’d like to have different options. Because I cannot play as much, perhaps I should have pushed myself to explore different things when I was younger. Now, with hindsight, and as a mother I would want my son to explore as many things as possible and to have a very well-rounded education so that anything he would want to do is possible. I should have been made to do more sports as playing is also a very physical endeavour and one has to keep fit for good health, but I was so unaware of these things in my youth. So many music students are stiff: they don’t know how to move and how to breathe as they lead very sedentary lifestyles. I often see people suffer from burnout as they are not physically fit enough to cope with the demands of touring life or they don’t know how to cope with stress mentally. We were often not taught these things while we studied which I feel is detrimental to many people’s future lives and careers.
VM: What do you think of the music students nowadays?
SO: The general standard and level of playing is extremely high these days with students from all over America, Asia and Europe playing exceptionally well. In my youth there weren’t so many good violists (hence all the viola jokes!) and now there are so many wonderful players. When you then come across players with extreme intelligence, a keen sensibility and awareness, desire and passion for music and music making and an individual voice, it is extremely exciting. We have watched some of these students flourish into wonderful artists in the last few years through the Society and watched them develop with every step. The owners of the instruments have loved to be a part of their development as have we.
VM: Any future projects?
SO: There’s a lot of work involved with the Society as Steven, Simon and Maja (our Head of Sales) work very hard to find new buyers to purchase instruments for our Society’s artists. I will play some chamber music with friends soon (next concert will be with Ning Feng and the Sitkovetsky Trio) and I will be giving some masterclasses in a new festival in Jeju Island in Korea in August.
VM: Given your experience in music thus far, if you’ve something that you’d like to tell your students, what’d that be?
SO: Work really hard. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have, without determination, grit, sheer hard work and making smart decisions, you will not fulfil your full potential. When you do your utmost and stretch yourself to the furthest limits and set your standards high, you will hopefully reach your goals and do the work that you desire. It’s about dedication and hard work, acquiring knowledge, curiosity and having passion for the music, and then “luck” will follow.
The interview came to a close as So-Ock went to play chamber music with her violist friend from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and a cello professor from RAM.
For all general enquiries regarding Beare’s, please get in touch via the company’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, please visit:
Beare’s website: https://www.beares.com/
Society website: https://www.beares.com/beares-international-violin-society
For the violin masterclasses in Korea in August: https://www.gatimusic.com