Seunghee Lee, Pianist in Review

Presented by MidAmerica Productions
Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY
November 24, 2012

The arts are in a jumble, but America remains the coveted destination for those who seek higher education and a head start in a classical performance career. As college costs aspire to reach the stars, so do many of our foreign students, who are being trained superbly, and increasingly, outside of the typical metropolitan capitals of the country.

On Saturday, November 24 at 2:00 pm, the Korean pianist Seunghee Lee gave a recital at Alice Tully Hall presented by MidAmerica Productions (now in its 30th season of forging concert liaisons here and abroad). A graduate of SangMyung University in Seoul, Ms. Lee chose to make her next stops at Ohio University and the University of Kentucky, whence she has emerged in the spring of this year, fully equipped to join the profession as instructor at SangMyung University in Seoul, with a doctoral dissertation on Korean contemporary piano music in hand. Ms. Lee’s biography cites a number of prizes and credits, including concerts in Brazil and a master class coaching with Kimura Park (presumably the pianist Jon Kimura Parker).

Ms. Lee established her porcelain signature sound from the outset on Saturday in a pair of unrelated Scarlatti sonatas, the tender K. 197 in B Minor and the top-ten favorite K. 159 in C Major, with its stuttering staccato thirds and cheery grace notes, deftly enunciated. Consistently attentive to clarity and polished treble, Ms. Lee prefers to butter her Baroque textures lavishly, but her sound retains its characteristic simplicity and integrity at all times.

If Ms. Lee is discovering a personal statement independent of the common sincerity of all music-making, this statement may be in its germinal phase: Saturday’s recital was a heavenly musical pot-luck. Its major works were the Bach-Busoni Chaconne and Brahms’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel (listed familiarly as “Handel Variations”). The Bach-Busoni was a late substitution for the “Corelli Variations” by Rachmaninoff, publicized on the outdoor marquee. A penchant for Baroque themes with their sets of full-blown Romantic variations would be an intriguing specialty, but the association would warrant an architectural perspective as well as an effervescent one. Ms. Lee’s cultivated sound and beautifully proportioned sense of rhythm did much to compensate for the absence of tragic declamation or exhilaration, respectively, in Bach-Busoni and Brahms. To decrease the cumulative effect of repetition and downplay the arrival of the fugue, Ms. Lee showed the courtesy to keep things moving and omitted nearly every repeat in the Brahms, as if for a timed audition. The through-composed Variation 13, in which Brahms extravagantly reiterates phrases in the upper octave to prolong the sway of the Hungarian lassan, contrasted noticeably with the compactness of the piece. After a dozen progressively thornier segments, the expected main course fugue proceeded as a blip on the radar, proficiently executed but minimally histrionic.

Partial responsibility for this non-starter of a cultural event should fall to the MidAmerica audience, which seemed especially papered with musical novices. Just as we were getting to know Ms. Lee and her lithe, violinistic style in the Bach Chaconne, the handsome crowd erupted into intermittent applause as if to cheer a home run every time she traversed the keyboard with razzle-dazzle. The offending persons did not stay beyond the first half, but we were treated to security ringtones, flash photography, electronic chimes, and exiting audience members during the remainder of the concert.

The most successful aspect of the recital was the grassroots parallel Ms. Lee drew between Samuel Barber’s Excursions and two atmospheric Korean dances by the composer Young Jo Lee, who is lucky to have such a devoted interpreter of his new piano works. Barber’s ostinato figures were comfortably controlled and his violin square dance full of fun, while the octatonic barcarolle and sicilian rhythms in Young Jo Lee’s Korean Dance Suite extended throughout the piano’s range and began to resemble Henri Duparc’s L’Invitation au Voyage gone to the dark side. Christian Sinding’s Rustle of Spring was a fluent and colorful encore.