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COURTESY: OREGON SYMPHONY - Paul Ghun Kim, Oregon Symphony resident conductor, once attended music school with Lang Lang. Hes a great person, a very warm person, Kim says. Hes a cultural icon.Way back when, Paul Ghun Kim remembers his schoolmate at Philadelphia Curtis Institute of Music, and he could foresee the superstardom that Lang Lang would soon reach.


“We knew each other, and talked with each other sometimes. I can’t say he was my ‘buddy,’” Kim says. “Lang Lang was well on his way to stardom, and he was spending most of his time getting ready for those big things.”

Last year, when Lang Lang played with the Oregon Symphony, for which Kim serves as resident conductor, the two reunited.

“He’s so famous, he goes around the world, meets so many people and I thought, ‘He’s not going to remember who I am,’” Kim adds. “I walked into his dressing room, and he saw me and said, “Oh, hey Paul,’ like it was yesterday. I told him, ‘It’s been 20 years!’ And he says, ‘Yeah, how is your mom?’ ... Then he told his mom, ‘Remember Paul from school?’”

Well, the connection happens again at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 15, when Lang Lang Lang makes a return visit to play with the Oregon Symphony at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Lang Lang will play Grieg’s powerful “Piano Concerto” with the Oregon Symphony, which will conducted by none other than .... Kim. Normally Carlos Kalmar, music director, conducts for such big events, but the Symphony wanted to give Kim the chance to work with maybe the world’s most renowned pianist.

“It’s really nice that they’re giving me the opportunity to do this,” says Kim, 34, who’s in his third season as resident conductor. “He’s a world famous pianist, maybe the most popular in the world right now. It’s a big deal that Portland can get him two years in a row, and it’s a really nice occasion for me, and it actually brings back my childhood in a way. It’s been a long road in the world of conducting.”

Kim, who was born in Seoul, South Korea, and raised in Philadelphia, played violin, and he recalls sharing the stage with the Chinese star Lang Lang at the exclusive Curtis Institute for the school’s 75th anniversary concert.

“He’s a great person, a very warm person,” Kim says. “He’s a cultural icon. For me, his best quality is he spends and gives a lot of his time to youth, the next generation, which could be the next generation of musicians. He built a school in China under his name, and he goes there every month to do masters classes and lessons. He also teaches teachers; he makes sure the quality of the music making and students’ love of music making is held up and encouraged.

“I envy that, because he’s in that position to do so. He’s achieved this much fame, and he attracts as many people as possible. That’s something that I strive for as a musician, to pass it on to make it enjoyable for the others.”

Kim has been conducting the Symphony in pops and kids concerts, mostly, while getting some opportunities with classical concerts. For the Oct. 15 concert, the Symphony will also play Offenbach’s “Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld” and Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 8, G major.”

Working with Lang will be, he adds, “quite a thrill. He’s a musician, a true musician, and he’ll be taking risks and having fun. What can I do? Create an environment for him to feel comfortable.”

It’s a far cry from some of the other music he works with, such as Ben Folds and Boys II Men, but Kim loves all music.

“I point (Folds, Boys) out because they were my favorites even among classical pieces,” he says. “It’s a thrill you get on stage with people like Boys II Men and Ben Folds, because they care about the audience, and they make an event out of nothing. That is something us classical musicians can learn from.”

Kim has a lot of favorites and mentors in music, from soprano Maria Callas to conductor Lorin Massel to late jazz great Ella Fitzgerald — “I have a thing for female vocalists,” he says, chuckling. But he also likes the classics — his favorite composer these days is possibly Robert Schumann. He’d love to eventually work with Romanian pianist Radu Lupu.

Then you have Kalmar, who has taught Kim many things.

“He’s a great conductor, but there’s also a difference between a great conductor and a great music director,” Kim says. “He’s a person who’s able to do both, which is very rare. That’s something that has to be learned.

“He shares his free time with me. He’s valuable to learn from.”

Kim eventually would like to ascend to be a conductor for a symphony. In the meantime, he continues to pay his dues — yeah, working with Lang Lang, paying his dues — while also enjoying his new home of Portland and the other pleasures in his life.

“I read a lot of scores, and I also watch sports,” he says, referring to his fandom of the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies. “I do fantasy football; I get more nervous about fantasy football than auditions. I take it very seriously and I’m in a very competitive league.”

He studied at Curtis under Jascha Brodsky and with Hilary Hahn. Kim doesn’t necessarily miss playing the violin, which he gave up after his education at Curtis to conduct, but he misses playing the likes of Beethoven and Haydn with chamber music friends.

For now, he enjoys his stint with the Oregon Symphony.

“The level of playing is very, very hard,” he says. “We can stack up to any orchestra in the country. If my experiences mean something — I’ve lived in Philadelphia, Amsterdam and Vienna — the Symphony is pretty much up there (with the best). The scary part is it’s getting better, it keeps growing, going forward in artistic leadership.

“But it also has that Portland element to it. It’s a bit of a neighborhood orchestra that has something for everybody.”

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