Press/Review #1

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Review on April 21, 2002
New Music on Korean Instruments
  By Benjamin Frandzel

                         Composer Hyo-shin Na and Citywinds are really an ideal
                           match. Both have made indelible contributions to the Bay
                           Area's musical life through the sheer quality of their work,
                           not to mention the originality of their approaches. This
                           weekend's concerts were a case in point. Not content
                           simply to present new Korean works for their own
                           ensemble, Citywinds invited Contemporary Music
                           Ensemble Korea, leading proponents of new music on
                           Korean instruments, to join them in a fascinating
                           program. Na introduced the program and added three
                           striking works of her own, including two world premieres.

                           Na contributed to the program as a cultural ambassador
                           of sorts, introducing the members of CMEK and leading
                           a demonstration of the instruments. First there were the
                           Peopgeum and Kayageum, tabled zithers very much
                           like the koto; the piri, a penny whistle-sized, alternately
                           sweet and piercing double-reed; the Saenghwang, a
                           mouth organ which, Na explained, is the only harmonic
                           instrument of Korea; and the Taegeum, a bamboo
                           transverse flute whose pure tone is augmented by a
                           raspiness created by a surrounding membrane. In the
                           hands of this ensemble's three virtuosi, the expressive
                           and timbral character of all the instruments was varied to
                           a remarkable degree.

                           Although Na has written music that is dynamic in a more
                           conventional sense, the pieces on this program often
                           reached their deepest intensity through a near stillness.
                           Instruments focused on single sustained pitches for
                           extended lengths, examining and reworking their
                           timbres, expressive purpose, and interrelationships with
                           the other instruments in a focused, sensitive manner. In
                           all three of her works on the program, this approach
                           made for fascinating listening.

                                   Different dimensions in each pitch

                           Na makes a thorough examination of the musical
                           materials at hand, searching for details and possibilities
                           within her ideas. Her aesthetic worked ideally in
                           Chung-Ji-Hyang, written for CMEK. The instrumentalists
                           displayed a great ability to manipulate the attacks,
                           intonation and colors of their instruments, finding
                           different dimensions in each pitch, often hanging on
                           single notes or brief figures while re-coloring the
                           individual and collective timbres. There was a sense of
                           this as very personal music for both composer and
                           performers. The players exuded a palpable feeling for
                           the shifting relationships within the ensemble, a great
                           deal happening within an outwardly still framework.

                           Na added two new works inspired by poetry. For
                           Szymborska's Muse, a musical reflection of Wislawa
                           Szymborska's Nothing Twice, the composer employed
                           the taegeum and piri in gradually shifting relationships,
                           repeating the same material in new ways. Much of the
                           interest in the piece came as the players effectively
                           traded places, taegeum player Jeong-Seung Kim
                           gradually moving from his raspiest tone to his purest,
                           while Piri player Chi-wan Park's initially soft playing
                           transitioned to the instrument's most strident voice.
                           Some special aural touches were included, as Kim wore
                           a beaded bracelet, shaking when he added vibrato,
                           which serves as a specialized expressive device in this
                           music. Na explained in her introduction that Kim is the
                           first taegeum player to develop multiphonics on his
                           instrument, and these formed a potent addition to the
                           piece as it reached its conclusion.

                           The ensemble expanded for Akhmatova's Muse,
                           inspired by Anna Akhmatova's poem The Muse. In
                           keeping with the poet's account of listening to the muse,
                           Na created a structure in which the ensemble of flute/alto
                           flute, taegeum, oboe, piri and kayageum could respond
                           to intense interaction with each other. The textures were
                           among the most compelling of the day, as the two flutes
                           and the two double reeds paired up and explored both
                           their shared qualities and differences by holding and
                           restating sustained pitches or short figures.

                                         A rich soundscape

                           As the unpaired voice in the ensemble, kayageum player
                           Jiyoung Yi was free to play more extended figures and
                           sweeping lines over the sustained pitches of the winds,
                           and displayed the expressive variety of this timbrally rich,
                           25-string instrument. With what seemed to be a great
                           deal of freedom within the score, the players extended
                           the piece a bit beyond what might have been its most
                           concise statement, but rewarded the audience with a
                           rich soundscape and deeply focused ensemble sense.

                           This unusual program also offered the opportunity to
                           hear Korean composers who are little known here.
                           Young-ja Lee, one of Korea's most distinguished
                           composers, presented the world premiere of her Trio for
                           flute, clarinet and bassoon. The playing was beautifully
                           shaped in the slow first movement, affecting a sense of
                           unity even as the lines veered further and further apart.
                           The following two movements were filled with inventive
                           counterpoint, lines extended and rebalanced to create a
                           satisfying whole.

                           The only work to use the full consort of Korean and
                           Western instruments, Yun-Kyung Lee'sThread and
                           Needle, was a brief and not terribly substantial work.
                           Mixing Korean and Western folk songs, the work
                           presented them, than scattered them into fragments,
                           without finding its way to any greater musical purpose.

                           In the lone conventional wind quintet on the program,
                           Citywinds brought an excellent balance and collective
                           expression to Isang Yun's Wind Quintet of 1991, a work
                           from the end of this esteemed composer's career.
                           Despite the group's committed performance, this work's
                           rapid first movement fell prey to the alternating,
                           roundtable-discussion style of contrapuntal writing which
                           is all to common in the wind quintet idiom and quickly
                           grows wearying. The slow movement that ended the
                           work, however, was compelling in its casting of the group
                           as an orchestra of two sections, the rumbling low voices
                           of the horn and bassoon mixing with the upper voices of
                           flute, clarinet and oboe. The quintet dealt with the
                           challenge of the gradually bending pitches at the work's
                           end with great care and musicality.

                           (Benjamin Frandzel is a Bay Area musician and writer. In
                           addition to writing concert music, he has collaborated
                           with dance, theater, and visual artists, and has written
                           about music for many publications and musical
                           organizations. He is currently a graduate student in
                           composition at San Francisco State University.)
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