Dennis Kim, holding his violin and bow stands on a bridge with students in the background.
Dennis Kim, who plays a 322-year-old Stradivarius as concertmaster of the Pacific Symphony, says his chief goal as an assistant professor at UCI is “to prepare students for a life in music.” Steve Zylius / UCI

Tropical fish helped turn Dennis Kim into a violin virtuoso. “That’s why I practiced,” he says, recalling how his father rewarded progress on the instrument with finned additions to the young violinist’s aquarium.

Luckily, Kim has a different incentive program in mind for UCI violin students. Instead of aquatic creatures, he hopes to offer career and performance opportunities with the Pacific Symphony (where he serves as concertmaster), the Bowers Museum, Irvine Barclay Theatre, the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, and other venues to which he has professional ties.

After three years as an adjunct, Kim – who plays a 322-year-old Stradivarius once used to debut composer Igor Stravinsky’s work – will officially join UCI’s Department of Music as an assistant professor on July 1. He replaces another storied violinist, Haroutune Bedelian, who taught at UCI for 32 years before retiring in 2020.

Kim teaches with “infectious enthusiasm,” says Nicole Grimes, the Robert and Marjorie Rawlins Chair in Music. And he’s sensational in master class settings, she adds: “He can diagnose problems in a student’s playing and provide technical and artistic advice that transforms their performance in a matter of minutes.”

Hiring Kim is a triumph for the university and its music students, Grimes says.

It also signals “a new era of collaboration between UCI and the Pacific Symphony,” says Tiffany López, dean of the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. “This is a milestone artistic bridge between our institutions, and it’s just the beginning.”

John Forsyte, the symphony’s president, agrees: “UCI is one of our most important partners, and we’ve begun discussing a number of exciting ideas with Dean López and Professor Grimes, including special performances, mentorships and the possibility of our music director, Carl St.Clair, working with UCI students.”

Kim, who grew up in Toronto, began studying the violin when he was about 5 years old, after a customer at the convenience store owned by his Korean immigrant parents walked in carrying a violin case and his dad asked what was inside.

Early on, Kim’s talent stood out. “My teacher said I was one in a million, but my parents and I just figured she said that to all her students,” he recalls.

So he played football and baseball in high school, joined a juggling club and dreamed of becoming a professional hockey star. Alas, his NHL aspirations were iced by his parents’ inability to pay for all the equipment.

It wasn’t until Kim was accepted to Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music that another career path started sinking in, he says.

At age 22, he was named concertmaster of the Tucson Symphony. From there, Kim led orchestras in Hong Kong, South Korea, Finland and – just before joining the Pacific Symphony in 2018 – Buffalo, New York. And he’s performed on four continents and on the soundtracks of such movies as “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Jumanji: The Next Level.”

“He’s a very tangible model to students of what they can accomplish,” Grimes says.

At UCI, in addition to providing one-on-one violin instruction, Kim will work with the school’s chamber ensembles and offer seminars. He also leads Trio Barclay, a violin-cello-piano combo.

Looking ahead, Kim plans to recruit new students from local high schools. Orange County, he says, is to classical music what the South is to football: bursting with talent. Could UCI become the Crimson Tide of Mozart and Beethoven? “There’s nothing stopping us from challenging top music departments around the world,” Kim says.

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