Sung Jin Hong is the artistic director and conductor of the New York ensemble One World Symphony. In this playlist, he explores identity and idealism in music. Here is his introduction to the selection.
“What is it about Mignon that has captivated composers for over two centuries? More than 70 different composers have given voice to Goethe’s enigmatic heroine from his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Does Mignon’s allure come from her incestuous conception or because she embodies one who yearns for the unattainable—what Goethe refers to as die Sehnsucht? Perhaps it is because in her song, ‘Kennst du das Land,’ (‘Do you know the land’), she asserts a creed to not only know but build a land for the oppressed and silenced. I recently received a commission to compose a new work with Goethe’s androgynous child as the muse. It has led me to question, ‘Do we know the land?’ Instead of comparing various portraits of the bound wanderer, the following playlist explores my artistic roots, lessons that have imparted moments of permanence.”
Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111; Ivo Pogorelich (Piano)
When my family immigrated to America, we lived in a compact, altered church garage for nearly seven years. During that time, we bought an old upright piano. I vividly remember my grandmother playing the piano and singing Korean folk songs, hymns, and Beethoven’s “Arietta” with sublime “jeong.” (“정,” a deep human experience of unbreakable bond, nurturing both the internal “oneness” and external “we-ness.”) She became my first mentor and aimed to instill her mantra in me: “Read. Pray. Never forget. Sing!” My grandmother wanted me to both embrace the joy in living and creating and remember the horror of what our people had suffered—the deliberately forgotten massacre of Asians by Imperial Japanese forces in World War II.
A fluid impression of yin and yang emerges in the two-movement structure of Beethoven’s Sonata: Maestoso–Arietta, minor–major, allegro–adagio, appassionato–cantabile, disciplined sonata–improvisational variations. Beyond the tangibles, Beethoven reminds us to feel. Feel something, anything. In a world obsessed with becoming more interconnected, does our universe appear more disconnected with real human emotion? Was Beethoven’s truth to be accepted, serve those who “liked” and “followed” him, and create sanitized art? Or did he transcend social conformities to emanate an eternal zeitgeist?
Olivier Messiaen: “Oraison”; Ensemble D’Ondes de Montreal
Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” was first introduced to me by Illinois Wesleyan composition professor David Vayo. Instead of projecting his ideas, he listened to our chamber group’s perspective and encouraged us to pursue our purpose of experiencing the historical, intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual elements of the work. During our rigorous process of living with the Quatuor, it felt as if we discovered multiple dimensions not only of time, but of silence. For Messiaen, “in the beginning”—instead of the Word or time—there was the Silence. This piece builds imperceptibly towards the climax, where the silence crystallizes into an “extatique” moment of incarnation.
“Quatuor pour la fin du temps” received its world premiere while Messiaen was a prisoner of war at the Nazis’ Stalag VIII-A camp in 1941. The part which isn’t as well known is that two movements originated from two prewar compositions, including “Oraison,” (1937) which inspired the Quatuor’s fifth movement, “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus.”
Kaija Saariaho: “Quatre Instants”; Karen Vourc’h (Soprano), Sakari Oramo (Conductor), Finnish Radio Symphony
“You are the perfume of the moment… and already the stuff of memory”—from the third movement, “Parfum de l’insant”
One World Symphony has performed Kaija Saariaho’s “Quatre Instants” several times, including its Brooklyn premiere. Instead of a blaring flame that’s not mindful of its ecological footprint, her music is distilled with a “perfume” that may last mere seconds, conjuring existential and sensual palpitations. The “stuff of memory,” die Sehnsucht for Mignon, is unquestionably what Wilhelm Meister cherished—and possibly obsessed over—until his death. Far from a fragment, its incorporeal aura intensifies the longing of every breath and gesture.
Much can be learned about composers from how they write for the voice. Do they rely on screams, extended techniques, electronics, and imitative drones? With the spectral approach of delicately developing textures and gradually transforming them, Saariaho serves Amin Maalouf’s evocative monologue in “Quatre Instants” and liberates the human voice to naturally soar.
Benjamin Britten: “Moonlight Interlude” from “Peter Grimes”; Leonard Bernstein (Conductor), Boston Symphony Orchestra
Interpreters of the “Moonlight Interlude” from Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes” frequently propel the music forward—even abbreviating the written rests—and only focus on what’s above the surface of that fathomless sea. However, a sense of the vastness and profundity in the waters permeated Leonard Bernstein’s rendering of the psychological drama. Instead of forcing the troubled depths forward, he patiently sung through the articulated silences, allowing Britten’s music and narrative to unfold naturally. He reached for the ocean abyss by directing the entire symphony to listen for the lower strings’ sonorities, depicting the ever-present sea as a visceral counterpart to the judgmental mob. Perhaps Bernstein empathized with this hopeless outsider during his last solitary moment with the natural world, when his clouds of agony, guilt, and secrecy were allowed to “breathe in solemnity into the deep night.”
Britten’s words underscore the social and human issues of today: “The struggle of the individual against the masses…the more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual.”
Undine Smith Moore: “Before I’d Be a Slave”; Maria Corley (Piano)
Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her oratorio “Scenes from the Life of a Martyr” (inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.) and a granddaughter of slaves, Undine Eliza Anna Smith Moore courageously addressed the black American experience—and its roots in a history of fighting for justice and equality—in her work. Before the Civil Rights movement, many of her compositions, including “Before I’d Be a Slave,” spoke of owning that spirit: her heritage.
The way Smith Moore directly addressed the validity of her people has resonated with me. Instead of forcing a narrative of finding beauty in dark, desolate sublimity, this tight, impenetrable work unapologetically voices the experiences of her people who defiantly resist their dehumanization.
Isang Yun: “Espace I”; Christine Rauh (Cello and speaker), Johannes Nies (Piano)
“Cello is my voice, the voice of my soul.”—Isang Yun
Korean composer and activist Isang Yun’s Cello Concerto (1976) explicitly expressed the horrors of being tortured by and imprisoned under Imperial Japanese rule and the South Korean dictatorial government. His “Espace I,” however, concentrated on the moment, not of the past or the future, with a sense of space and stasis and “the urgency of now,” according to cellist Christine Rauh.
Studying Isang Yun’s works inspired me to return to poems by Buddhist, activist, and resistance poet Han Yong-un (한용운) (1879–1944), including his misunderstood poem “복종” (“Submission”) from Meditations of the Lover (1925):
Some love freedom / but I love more / submission. / Now that I know not / of freedom but to you alone / freely from the heart I / give my submission. / Sweeter than beautiful freedom / it is for me / the signs of blessing / freely to give you / from the heart submission, / Only if you say / to give my submission / to the one not you / that is impossible. / To deny submission / freely given from the / heart to you how could I / give that after my submission!
The potent poem asks individuals to consider the unthinkable: to “love submission over freedom.” Han was imprisoned and tortured for three years by Imperial Japan for leading the movement of the Re-Independence of Korea. He urged his people to not only fight for freedom, but rise up against the erasure of their language and identity, dismantle revisionism, honor their true cultural narrative, and reclaim their unbreakable bond of belongingness (“jeong,” 정) to one another and to one’s land. He was aware that the world will only be transformed by individuals seizing the arc of history and bending it with their voice and bloodied hands a fraction of a degree closer to justice. ¶