The unstrung violinist

gone min kymReview: Vivien Horler

Gone – a girl, a violin, a life unstrung  (Viking/ Penguin)


Min Kym was a child prodigy violinist. Born in South Korea, her family moved to London when she was three, where her father worked for Daewoo.

Her older sister was musical, and the two girls would play “duets” together in their bedroom at night, the sister playing on a drawn paper keyboard and Min on a paper violin.

At a very young age Min was given an eight-size violin, harsh and factory made, but she loved it, loved the feel of it, and by the time of her first lesson she had taught herself to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Playing a violin was not simply for Min, it was Min, she writes. Everything about it was easy and natural: “I had found, not only my home and my voice, but my element… I felt like a creature released, alive in herself for the first time.”

Her sister, nine at the time, was a good enough pianist to get into the Purcell School for Young Musicians, Britain’s oldest specialist musical school. Min at seven was too young, but one day while she and her mother were collecting her sister, Min carrying her violin, the headmaster asked her if she could play.

pic of min kymCertainly, she said, and played Bach’s Concerto in A minor. Afterwards the headmaster said he thought he could bend the rules, allowing her to start at the school two years earlier than usual. He would also see if he could provide some financial help.

Things didn’t run entirely smoothly – Min’s dad was posted back to South Korea – and it was some years before Min could take up her place.

She studied with some top teachers including the legendary Ruggiero Ricci at the University of Salzburg, and became a student at the Royal College of Music. She bought her first proper violin, a Carlo Bergonzi, for £250 000, partly funding the purchase with money she had won in a competition. She became a soloist, played with the likes of Vladimir Ashkenazy, made a recording.

When she was 21she bought a new violin, a Stradivarius made by the master luthier((corr)) Antonio Stradivari in the late 17th century. It cost her just under £450 000, money she raised by part-exchanging it for her Bergonzi and by remortgaging her flat. Ten years later it was worth about £1million.

The first time she played it, it was if all her life had been a rehearsal for this moment. “The instant I drew the first breath with my bow I knew. It sang, so sweet and bell-like but with an underlying steel and brilliance… There was no question, no doubt. It was love at first sight, love and everything else: honour, obedience, trust, everything.” It would be a partnership for life.

She recorded the Brahms violin Concerto in D major for Sony, and says to hear, know and play this music “is to define, in music, the state of love… This is what my violin was made for. This is what I was made for.”

Then, shortly after the making the recording, she and her boyfriend Matt were at Euston Station about to catch a train for Manchester. As always, she had her Strad with her, he his cello. They stopped in a café for some coffee, and Matt persuaded a reluctant Min to put the violin on the pile of their luggage by his chair. When they rose to leave it was gone.

Min, now 31, fell apart. It was like losing a part of her body, a child. She couldn’t play, couldn’t do the appearances for Sony to boost the sales of the recording. She was lent a Bergonzi, but shut it up in its case. She was offered the loan of a Guarneri del Gesu, even rarer than her Strad, but it wouldn’t do. Min felt: “If it had been my child that had been stolen, would people have expected me to accept another one? Just as good!”

The violin had been her voice, and now it was gone. She could barely bring herself to play.

To say much more would be a spoiler, but there is a lot of book left after the theft of the Strad, including the role of Matt, the toad.

She muses on great violins, like her Strad. They are no longer bought to play – they are bought as an investment, lying in safes, behind fireproof doors.

“They do not earn their keep in the concert hall. They earn their keep in the dark.” And as their value rises, violinists can no longer afford them. “But Stradivari made his violins for players. A great Strad can fill a big concert hall like no other violin. ,,, They were made for playing, for bringing the great concertos to life.”

There is a playlist that accompanies this narrative, all music recorded by Min, some of it on her Strad. Gone: The Album has been released on Warner Classics, and whenever the text refers to a piece of music from the album, there is a note in the margin.

I think musicians would like this book, but you can be something of a musical philistine like me and still enjoy it very much indeed. It is a great read.

*This review also appears in Weekend Argus on Sunday today.




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