This week as part of the Old First Concert series at the Old First Presbyterian church on Van Ness and Sacramento streets in San Francisco, CA a unique concert and birthday celebration took place.
It was the 80th birthday of Korean composer Young Ja Lee. Performers from many backgrounds came to sing, play, and celebrate her life and music. Young Ja Lee may not be a household word yet but this composer is an innovator and trailblazer that deserves wider appreciation.
Young Ja Lee was born in Wonju, Kangwon province, Korea. She is one of the most prominent Korean women composers of her time. She is one of the first of two women composers to emerge from Korea after the Korean war. A trailblazer for others, she emerged at a time when women composers simply did not exist in Korea.
She quickly excelled and has won numerous awards beginning with first prize in the 4th annual Korean National Music Competition in Composition (1956). This happened while she was a graduate student at Ewha Womens University in Seoul. She went on to study at the Paris National Conservatory in France and extended her musical studies in New York and Belgium.
Young Ja Lee has championed the cause of women composers for many years. In 1981, she co-founded the first official women composers gathering in Korea, the Korean Women Composers’ Association, which elected her as its first president. The Association is still going hundreds of members strong.
Young Ja Lee is one of the few Korean women composers named in The Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (1994) and in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Her music has been performed widely in many countries.
The performance in San Francisco included duets for voice and piano, pieces for solo piano and the world primere of “Lament” for three kotos.
The afternoon began with three songs: “You are my love, you are my sorrow”, “Raising a star”, and “The person I love”. These were brilliantly performed by pianist Jeong-Hwa Park and soprano Kyoung Cho. The poetry was beautiful and filled with emotion. This example from “You are my love you are my sorrow” by El-geun Chung is a sample:
When I see beautiful things I think of you
When I see tearful things I think of you
From the first dawn I wake up thinking of you
Until late night when tears are welling up in my body
You are my love
You are my sorrow
It was sung in an operatic Bell Canto style. The unusual thing about these songs is they were not sung a language like French, German or Italian normally associated with this style of music, but were sung in Korean! The language fit seamlessly into the style and Jeong-Hwa Park and Kyoung Cho effectively conveyed the emotion which could be felt irrespective of the listeners language.
Réminiscences de la Provence was a suite of three solo piano pieces inspired by Young Ja Lee’s visit to cities in France and the life and paintings of Van Gough and Cezanne. A word needs to be said about Jeong-Hwa Park here as her piano playing was par excellence! Rarely do you find a pianist who is technically excellent coupled with the ability to convey a wide range of emotions.
Ms. Park achieved this flawlessly on “Les Dernières Années de Van Gogh” which explored the darker aspects of the painter’s life with deep cluster chords on the pianos lower register and scalar passages in the mid to upper registers. This was contrasted by “L’ Atelier de Cézanne et. . .” characterized by flowing melodic passages and lighter impressionistic themes.
The grand premiere of the evening was “Lament” for three kotos. The piece was a first on two counts: it was its first time being played and it was the first time Young Ja Lee had written for koto. The koto is a Japanese zither that is about six metres long and has thirteen strings with movable bridges that can accommodate a wide range of tunings.
The performers included two koto players from the bay area: Shoko Hikage and Kanoko Nishi and they were joined by Noriko Tsuboi from Thailand. The playing was very captivating keeping the mind in the present moment. The sound was somewhat familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time. The tuning was unconventional and the composition made extensive use of plucked sounds and hand sweeps across the strings.
The sound had a detuned, chorused effect between the kotos that gave it a microtonal feel. The arrangement also made use of echoing effects between the koto on the right and the koto on the left that kept the conversation going with commentary from the koto in the middle.
“Lament” worked on many levels and was a great success. Young Ja Lee achieved the middle ground in “Lament” so rarely seen in modern music. The challenge modern composers face is how to innovate without leaving the audience behind.
On one hand there is the tendency to write complex pieces that alienate the audience or to rely on tried-and-true formulas that lack creativity. “Lament” succeeds by retaining a sense of innovative creativity while giving the listener a cohesiveness that holds the attention and is pleasing to the ear.
The concert continued with three more songs: A Harbor, Crimson Sunset, and Dearest Spring beautifully sung and played by Kwyong Cho and Jeong-Hwa Park.
The afternoon concluded with Variations for Piano admirably played by Stanford piano faculty member and recording artist Thomas Schultz. If “Variations for Piano” could be summed up in one word it would be ‘Variety’.
There is a lot going on in the piece and even though notated it retains an improvisational feel and there are many recitative like passages. The challenge for the performer was to give the theme the right character which is a mix of light-heartedness and sadness at the same time.
Though largely deterministic in nature the piece gives a nod to indeterminism in one section where there is a pattern for the right hand a theme for the left but no instructions as to how they are to be coordinated challenging the performer to play something that is unique yet seamless with the rest of the composition.
At the age of eighty Young Ja Lee is still very agile and has a sharp mind. In conversation with her after the concert she had a unique response to the question: “How does it feel to have your music performed on your 80th birthday?” Her answer emerged from the perspective of Unity Consciousness: (via interpreter) “I am so happy because the music is one. If you don’t speak the language or understand the culture it is still all one. Korean, American, Japanese. . . the music, regardless of ethnicity it is all one!”
If you missed this concert and would like to have an opportunity to hear the music a koto concert will commence this Friday February, 11 2011 at 8pm at the Meridian Gallery on Powell St. Dubbed “Koto Lantana” it will feature the Lament for three kotos as well as a collection of traditional and modern koto pieces. Further info is available at www.ShokoHikage.com.
The Old First Church conducts a series of concerts throughout the year and many talented performers are featured. To find out more about upcoming performances visit www.oldfirstconcerts.org.
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