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
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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