Eun Sun Kim, the 39-year-old conductor from South Korea, is on the rise in Opera land. Her North American debut two years ago at Houston Grand Opera in “La Traviata” made news because she managed to make something out of what the press called a makeshift production after the company was flooded out of its home by Hurricane Harvey. That feat won her the post of principal guest conductor in Houston starting this fall.
Kim received good notices in San Francisco Opera’s production of Dvorák’s “Rusalka” in June, and Los Angeles Opera has her down for a company debut in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” in February (with Plácido Domingo still slated to star, at least as of Wednesday).
But before Kim hits the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, she made an appearance Tuesday night in a quite different context: as the leader of the last classical concert of the Hollywood Bowl season. That in itself presents a challenge. It’s mid-September, the Los Angeles Philharmonic is looking forward to a break after a long, tiring summer, rehearsal time is short. Though not nearly as serious as a hurricane, these conditions are not the most favorable in which to make an impression.
But Kim persevered, exhibiting a clear, efficient baton technique, if nothing particularly electrifying. For the opening selection, Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” she gave principal flutist Denis Bouriakov carte blanche to play the opening bars very freely, and the rest went with similar fluctuations to suggest a warm, humid evening somewhere.
With this repertoire at the core of his identity, Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing the Ravel Piano Concerto in G sounds like a sure bet, and it generally was. With Kim setting a crisp, lively pace and various soloists in the L.A. Phil piping up irreverently, Thibaudet could dance lightly over the keys with occasional stabs for emphasis or muse at a steady pace in the urbane simplicity of the slow movement. Thibaudet turned 58 three days before the concert, and from a profile view on the video screens, he is starting to resemble Leonard Bernstein, who happened to be a nimble advocate of the same Ravel concerto on the keyboard.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, last played at the Bowl in 2015, was the composer’s attempt to finally come to terms with the 20th century, and it has worn very well over the decades, steadily gaining more performances. It turned out to be Rachmaninoff’s swan song (he called it “probably my last flicker”), and in a fitting gesture, whether intentional or not, it was the last piece on the Bowl’s last classical program of 2019.
Kim made sure that the work’s brittle 20th century aspects were in play and that the waltz-like episodes of the second movement could dance gracefully. I wouldn’t say that Kim had the overall continuity of the piece as firmly in hand as Bramwell Tovey when he led it here in 2015, but the Phil gave a dynamic push when it was needed.