Senior cellist wins prestigious 2023 YoungArts finalist award

November 30, 2022 — by Anika Kapasi and Divya Vadlakonda
Photo by Music@Menlo
Senior Joel Kim performs at the Koret Young Performers Concert at the end of his second week at Music@Menlo, the chamber music festival, over the summer.
After playing cello for nine years, senior Joel Kim discusses how he has found success and how music has affected his lifestyle and goals for his future.

In November, senior Joel Kim, principal cellist in the Saratoga Strings orchestra, found out he was named a 2023 YoungArts finalist, an award which “recognizes work that demonstrates exceptional technique and a depth of thinking/performance that far exceeds the level of peers at [their] career stage.”

“It felt so unreal, like it wasn’t supposed to happen because only one to three cellos in the nation are selected as finalists every year out of all the applicants,” Kim said. “When they called me after sixth period, I thought it was a spam call.” 

Finalists winners are invited to participate in National YoungArts Week, held in Miami from Jan. 8-15. There Kim will have his playing further evaluated by internationally recognized cellists with the ability to win up to $10,000. By attending National YoungArts Week, he is considered for nomination to the U.S Presidential Scholars Program which honors the top nation’s graduating seniors.

The journey to this level of success began in fourth grade when he joined Redwood Middle’s orchestra program. After realizing he truly enjoyed playing the instrument, he began to take it seriously the year after and started lessons with a private teacher that he works with to this day.

Throughout his early years, Kim said failure helped him realize his true potential, whether it was through competitions, auditions or recordings. His practice and experience eventually paid off, and he found his first notable success in freshman year — when he was accepted to the chamber music festival Music@Menlo.

“Every kind of loss taught me something new because there are just so many aspects to performing,” he said.

Kim has been invited back to the festival every summer since 2020 and he said the institute has “propelled [him] forward” to give him the momentum to find success in all his endeavors.

Due to the pandemic, the festival was originally online for 2020 and 2021. But when it finally opened up to be in person the summer before his senior year, Kim said Music@Menlo gave him a glimpse of what it is like to pursue music as a career, learning from different artists from all around the world who are nationally and internationally recognized.

Structured as a 3-week camp, musicians work and practice during the week with the goal of performing a movement of their chamber piece at the end of each week in front of an audience.

“I think one of my proudest moments was probably the third week just because I think I was so nervous performing, but at the end of the week, I finally let go and I learned to have fun with [the piece],” he said.

Along with his accomplishments at the festival and as YoungArts winner, Kim has won numerous chamber competitions and solo awards, one of the most notable being named as a winner of 2021-2022 Saratoga High School Chamber Ensemble Competition. 

Music director Michael Boitz witnessed Kim grow as a person and musician and had the pleasure of watching him evolve into “someone more remarkable than [he] ever imagined.”

Boitz says that Kim had always had a particularly strong connection to every composer that he performs, pointing out that though many students can play technically, only a handful that he has seen have the ability to embody the piece and “bring the composer’s intentions to life.” Kim is one of those special students.

“He’s stood out since he was a ninth grader,” Boitz said. “He makes mistakes like anyone else in sight reading, half notes, quarter notes, but the most complex parts are easier for Joel than the more simplistic parts which is the case with a lot of brilliant people.”

Though Kim said he would like for music to continue to be a big part of his life after high school, he admitted he is apprehensive about pursuing music exclusively in college. 

“It’s such a difficult industry to make it in whether you’re performing in an orchestra, you’re doing a solo or if you want to be a teacher,” Kim said. “I’m focusing on applying to colleges that have a strong emphasis on being able to explore different subjects while still being able to pursue music.” 

Regardless of his future in music, his passion for it has blossomed in the last nine years, and he has found it to be an effective medium to interact with the audience in a unique way. 

“Music is like acting because I’m portraying this character of a composer or whatever the piece was intended to be written about or was written for,” he said. “It’s really inspiring to know that I have made some sort of meaningful impact on another person and that just motivates me to keep pursuing it.” 

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