Introducing: Roman Kim

The 23-year-old violinist is setting the concert world ablaze

Violin fans, strap in. This month you can experience a living legend and also catch a rising star. Household name Itzhak Perlman returns for a solo recital at the NCPA on Tuesday 10. Then just ten days later comes Roman Kim, a YouTube sensation as famous for his daring transcriptions as for his wildly experimental style.

The Kazakhstan native has studied with Maxim Vengerov, taken master classes with Midori Goto and Gidon Kremer, and has already played with the Cologne Philharmonic and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Inspired in equal part by Niccolo Paganini and Jimi Hendrix, Kim backs up astonishing technique with musical intelligence – and at age 23, he’s just getting started.

These days, ‘showman’ is a negative label, attached to shallow performers who put themselves first and their music second. But Kim is trying to take violin showmanship back to its basics, namely, Paganini. ‘There is this view that Paganini’s music is superficial and lacks content,’ he says. ‘[But] the depth isn’t apparent until you can play it in an interesting way.’

Besides Paganini, Kim’s other hero is Jimi Hendrix. ‘Both of them have incredible charisma, and were pioneers. Paganini was – like Jimi – a star. His energy was tremendous!’ he continues. ‘He showed people: “Here is the new world!”’

Since Kim is not satisfied with playing his instrument’s most virtuosic pieces, he transcribes, and even creates his own. Still working on his first concerto, he re-tuned his violin for a startling transcription of Bach’s Air on a G String, originally written for multiple voices. Kim plucks the base part with two fingers and bows the treble parts with the other two – at the same time, on the same instrument. His YouTube recording got over 170,000 views.

‘I only transcribe some piece that I can’t get out of my head, or when I’m fascinated by a recording,’ he says. ‘And when it’s [for multiple voices], then I will live with the music through my instrument and [experiment]. It’s interesting, it’s creative, and it somehow comes automatically; searching for solutions [teaches me] something new about the instrument,’ he continues. ‘But the music is the most important thing, so I change the original as little as possible.’

Instead he changes his instrument to fit the music, such as shifting the harmonics for Bach’s Badinerie, to make his strings sound more like the solo flute it was written for. For his I Brindisi (from La Traviata), he plucks one section with his teeth. ‘It was Jimi Hendrix who – again – gave me that idea,’ he says. ‘For this piece, at that musical moment, I needed something quite extraordinary – a real show element.’

His Beijing programme is a showcase of virtuosic works including those by Ysae, Tartini and, of course, Paganini, as well as some of his own works. Prepare to be amazed.

See our extended Q&A interview with Roman Kim, where he talks about his influences and playing the violin with his teeth.

  • 4 out of 5 stars