HJ Lim
  • Simon Fowler, EMI Classics
  • HJ Lim

Last night in the grand, wood-paneled Faberge of the Mark Taper Auditorium at Benaroya Hall, the Seattle Symphony performed Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella, Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major. (They do it again tomorrow night; click here for more.) Jun MÄrkl conducted, with smiling ginger stabs and metered gesticulations. The Stravinsky had well designed longing. It was lonely, yet hectic, stately and proclaiming, with periodic macabre. Quick sorties flew out of the horn section into royal happiness, then lifted back into the bowed string unison flanked on either side. A full string section moving completely together swayed like a kelp forest sways together in undersea current and tides.

Next was the Felix Mendelssohn. Enter pianist HJ Lim, or as I call her, the French-Korean Night Panther. She strode in confidently with long black hair, wearing a long black silk genius-robe. She sat down, flung the silk tails behind the seat, tossed her hand rag into the open well of the grand piano, and unleashed a two-handed hyper-dexterous volley on the keys. Her playing was a high-speed embroidery that deciphered the Mendelssohn into the furtherness of now and beyond. She’s a combination of accuracy, ferocity, and touch. Flurries of runs ran into moments of melodic stasis, where notes floated. She used no sheet music. There were sections combined with the symphony, sections where they rallied back and forth, and sections where she soloed, wafting long, slow, single notes that encased feathers into the ice of a frozen lake. Then the lake in an instant was a monsoon of sprinting scales, and the Night Panther was exploding waves into equations.

If I was going to have brain surgery, I would want HJ Lim to be my surgeon. The operation would be mistake-free, and it would be done in eight seconds. She’d be like, “Next.” I really wanted her to play the monstrosity of a pipe organ, mounted on the wall behind the stage, taunting. (The C. B. Fisk, Opus 114, with 62 voices, 83 ranks, 4,490 pipes.) The things HJ Lim would have done with that thing. The Night Panther would absolutely have phantomed the ever living hell out of that opera. The Night Panther probably doesn’t take requests though.

When she was 24, Lim recorded the complete cycle of the Beethoven sonatas for EMI Classics, performing all 32 sonatas over the course of eight days in Paris. She was also the youngest person ever to obtain the DiplÔme d'Etudes Musicales ComplÈtes of France’s Normandy Conservatory at age 15. Maybe she should be The Night PanthÈre instead. Mendelssohn’s ears would have been wide-eyed watching her play his concerto. Who was Felix Mendelssohn? What was he thinking in 1831 at age 22 when he composed the piece? He was a skilled piano player himself. And prone to temper tantrums if he didn’t get what he wanted. He probably only ate toast if there was fancy jelly and mint on it. He’d been a child prodigy, and said this Piano Concerto No. 1 had been “dashed off hastily and carelessly,” in a letter to his family. But with The Night PanthÈre, there was nothing remotely careless about her calculus of rendering on the keys.

To Felix we go now—Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, born and known as Felix Mendelssohn (February 3, 1809 – November 4, 1847), a German composer, pianist, and conductor of the early Romantic period. He was born to a notable Jewish family, being the grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. This must be where his taste for fancy jelly originated. His work includes symphonies, concerti, oratorios, piano, and chamber music. He grew up surrounded by intellectualness. Higher minds of Germany would visit to his family's home in Berlin, including Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Alexander von Humboldt. His sister Rebecka married the great German mathematician Lejeune Dirichlet. The Mendelssohns had moved from Hamburg, Germany to Berlin in disguise because they were afraid the French would seek revenge for the Mendelssohn bank's role in breaking Napoleon's Continental System blockade.

Maybe that’s where the tension comes from in his music. Having to be hidden. But if he had to hide, the Night Panther has found him. This music’s not careless anymore.

The Seattle Symphony and HJ Lim perform this program once again, tomorrow night. Click to buy tickets.