World music melds
in soulful performances

By Ruth O. Bingham
Special to the Star-Bulletin

With each generation, the world seems to shrink, and the impact on the concert hall is an expanding orchestral repertoire. Cultures from opposite ends of the earth, cultures that once seemed impossibly foreign to one another, now entwine in music.

Celebrating the centennial of Korean immigration to Hawaii, the Honolulu Symphony chose a symbolic program that literally circled the globe.

Copland's distinctly American The Tender Land Suite set the tone: the United States' melding of cultures within a pot of European orchestral tradition. Cellist Han-Na Chang, an American of Korean descent, closed the concert with Elgar's Concerto in E minor, Op. 85, the work closest to European tradition.

In between, Byung-Ki Hwang, a renowned composer and performer in South Korea, presented two of his own works: Saebom (Early Spring), which combined traditional Korean instruments and chamber orchestra, and ChimHyangMoo, for Korean instruments alone.

The effect was entrancing.

Saebom featured Hwang on kayagum (or gayageum), a 12-string plucked zither, and Woong-Sik Kim on janggu (or jang-goo), a double-headed drum. The orchestra introduced and concluded each of the five short movements, deferring to the soloists in mid-sections. The two integrated most fully in the fourth movement, the orchestra providing a rhythmic ostinato underlying solo flourishes. Saebom was an evocative work whose success relied upon Hwang's and Kim's impressive mastery.

In ChimHyangMoo, for kayagum and janggu, Hwang and Kim revealed an astonishing variety of sounds. Finely attuned to each other, they moved through the music as one. ChimHyangMoo proved a fascinating work, but one that lies wholly within the Korean tradition, and thus outside the scope of my critique.

Chang, now on her third collaboration with the Honolulu Symphony, gave a deeply moving performance of Elgar's concerto. Most concertos aim to display an instrument's or performer's abilities. Elgar's concerto instead explores difficult emotional territory -- the losses of war, the final illness of a lifetime companion. The music, dark and brooding, reaches into very painful emotional realms, and even its lighter passages are colored by shadows. It was an unusual choice for a 20-year-old.

Chang, however, never wavered, never shied away from the depths. There was nothing extraneous or shallow. She explored every note, understood its context and revealed its meaning.

Before the concert, she said she hoped "to have a soul chat with the audience ... to be a part of someone's heart for half an hour; it's a very special thing." That she achieved, but the "very special thing" on Friday night was Chang herself.

In a concert that so pointedly experimented with programming, it was easy to forget how different Copland and even Elgar once sounded in comparison to the core of European orchestral tradition, which has been slowly expanding in concentric circles for about 200 years. It is only a quirk of fate that the musical traditions of Europe, quite literally on the other side of the world from Hawaii, should be more familiar to Honolulu Symphony audiences than that of our much closer neighbor, Korea.

Whence, then, future programming? Do we remain focused on European traditions? Or will we shift to reflect changing demographics, with orchestras becoming the home to art musics from around the world? The question itself marks a new era for orchestras.

(P.S. In the lobbies, exciting news spread quickly but discreetly: Blaisdell has expanded one of the women's restrooms. At long last, parity! Instead of standing in line, women as well as men can now enjoy intermission's relaxing break. A new era has indeed begun.)

Ruth O. Bingham reviews classical music for the Star-Bulletin.

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