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“Piano Extravaganza: Three Generations of Pianists”


The Korean Cultural Society of Boston’s splashy gala of duets, two-pianos, and up to ten-hand legerdemain, not only entertained a large and enthusiastic Jordan Hall crowd, but it also got us thinking about Van Cliburn Gold Medalist Yuncham Lim, Korean emigration to America, and the presence of Koreans in our conservatories. (This had nothing at all to do with the arrival of Korean war brides and their subsequent difficulties in assimilation, we learned.). One of the participants, HaeSun Paik summarized the Korea to Conservatory history for BMInt thus:

When Jung-Ja Kim came to study at Juilliard prep and the New York High School of Performing Arts in 1960, there were two Korean pianists in the Juilliard upper school (college), Jung-Joo Oh and Nak-ho Paik. 

The Chung family, Myung Wha Chung (cello) and Kyung Wha Chung (violin) came to Juilliard in 1961. Kyungsook Lee (piano), Young Uck Kim (violin), and his sister, Deok Joo Kim (piano), were admitted to Curtis in 1961. Jung-Ja Kim recently finished her 50th year teaching at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee. She joined the piano faculty in 1972 after studying at Juilliard in the 1960s.

Wha Kyung Byun came to NEC to study for her Master’s degree in 1971, and there were a couple more Korean pianists at NEC at that time. She is considered one of the first-generation Korean pianists to study at NEC. When she became a faculty member at NEC in 1979, many students from Korea began to come from there to study with her, including current fellow faculty members HaeSun Paik and Minsoo Sohn.

Chinese students began to come to the U.S. to study in mid 1980’s, but it was very difficult to get any U.S. entry visas. In 1990s, the U.S. started to open doors for students to receive student visas easily. The student numbers multiplied drastically in the 2000s.The super stardom of Lang Lang and later, Yuja Wang, made it even more attractive to study in the U.S. to become successful. Foundation of Chinese Performing Arts’s Cathy Chan adds, “Lang Lang came to Boston in 1990 for our three-week summer festival on a tourist visa in early 1990s. His father also came on a tourist visa. In those days, for students from Taiwan or Hong Kong, it was much easier to get a student visa.

Multi-glad-hand repertoire comes in a variety of flavors such as transcriptions of larger works meant for performance at home, etudes for teachers and students, show-off concert repertoire, and occasionally original and artistic compositions for that genre. We heard all of the above, if not the extravagance of a ten-piano Gottschalk monster concert.

Pianists Changyong Shin, HaeSun Paik, Hannah Byun, Minsoo Sohn, and Jung-Ja Kim, approximately spanned three generations, even without Wha Kyung Byun, who had been at the side of  her dying husband Russell Sherman., though thankfully we were not told. We know and admire the work of Minsoo Sohn [his Goldbergs at Rockport astonished us] and HaeSun Paik has been memorable as a go-to concerto soloist, chamber partner, and soloist. Jun-Ja Kim, the lively first among the generations, got kudos on this site for her Trout with the Parker Quartet [review HERE]. On the basis of what we heard last night, the two students, Changyong Shin, and Hannah Byun will also be earning plaudits. [Full bios HERE]

About Mozart’s Sonata for Piano Duet in D Major, K. 381, which he wrote for himself and the young Nannerl, George and Andrew Li opined:

When the Mozart children were touring, though, they would most likely have been playing the harpsichord, since the hammered fortepiano would not replace its string-plucking keyboard cousin until the following decade. While the Sonata in D major K. 381 was composed in 1772, the lack of dynamic markings in the manuscript probably indicates that it was still written for harpsichord, not the fortepiano.

The equality of the parts demoted neither Changyong Shin nor HaeSun Paik to the role of student, yet this is a piece that many of us have attempted at home. The fast, clean, and emphatic Allegro traversal sounded like an etude in a good way. The Adagio sang with an intertwined theatricality, though it also felt a bit deliberate. The Allegro marched forth in military order with perfect simultaneity of gunfire.

In Debussy’s Petite Suite for Piano Four Hands, Hannah Byun and Minsoo Sohn colorfully and artistically painted colors and told stories. Free, elegant and very French at times, the players seemed to relish their conversations and childlike dreaminess only possible through adult nostalgia.

Minsoo Sohn, Hannah Byun, Jung-Ja Kim, HaeSun Paik, Changyong Shin

We needed no advice to hold onto our sombreros as Jung-Ja Kim and HaeSun Paik whipped up a tourist’s hat dance and more in a folk-friendly frenzy. Copland’s unforced cultural appropriation from and evocation of south-of-the-border aesthetics though a New York-Jewish lens sounds more than a little corny in the symphonic original, but in Bernstein’s two-piano version from 1943, the 12 minutes passed like a demonstration prize fight. What with the Mexicans, Jews, and Koreans laboring in their various spheres, we witneesed a veritable United Nations. Never bothering for too much subtly, the keyboard partners danced and cajoled with great nerve.

Schubert’s Divertimento in Hungarian Style in G minor, Op. 54, D. 818, evening’s single immersion in life’s storms, put across Schubert’s wistful joy in sadness with such inwardness that one could imagine the master speaking to us directly. Minsoo Sohn and HaeSun Paik nailed all the emotional stops and starts and major-minor alternations as shared fleeting moods. They gave us wonderfully sly ritards and repeats with subtle differences. They rollicked like dance partners in the Allegretto, switching leads as great dancers can. Overall it sounded dreamy but driven, becoming something of a mini-Wanderer Fantasy before expiring in a quiet curtsy.

From the onset of the massive growling bass at the beginning of Ravel’s La Valse, we knew we were in for bona fide grotesqueries of sweeping elegance with foreshadowing’s of malice in every passing turn of crinoline. Like Bolero or Red Shoes, it won’t let go. Unlike in the bangy solo piano version, Paik and Sohn, with two nine-footers at their disposal, never needed to force to achieve massive sonorities. Though this is a show-off piece for sure, in the four hands of these showmen, too much was a good thing.

Two encores followed with irresistible bonhomie:

Dvořák arranged his Slavonic Dance in E Minor, Op.72 No.2 for four hands from the orchestral score. Minsoo, Haesun, Changyong, and Hannah doubled the parts (eight hands) and tweaked a little by playing at the same time (eight hands) in repeats, and one piano (four hands) introducing the melody in order to give variety of colors, dialogues and dynamics.

Everyone was shoehorned onboard to expand Rachmaninoff’s Melody, his six-hand arrangement of the beginning of the second movement of his Second Piano Concerto, to ten hands. We doubled first (top) piano and the third (bottom) piano parts since Ms. Byun was missing. The second piano part is only an accompaniment with triplet murmurs. We highlighted the melody lines in different registers and bass with the second piano (first and third parts) (details supplied by HaeSun Paik)

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

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