The Pathway Concert Series presents Hyojung Huh in Review

The Pathway Concert Series presents Hyojung Huh in Review

Hyojung Huh, piano
“Earth and Heaven”: Chorale Fantasies 1, 2, and 3 by Shinuh Lee
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
December 18, 2014

It seemed as though there were two recitals happening side-by-side on Thursday, December 18, 2014. The first: a display of superior pianistic skill, with thundering climaxes, ethereal pianissimi, lyricism, beautiful tone, and totally committed playing. The second: an overview of one contemporary composer’s work that, to put it positively, would be called “eclectic, polystylistic.” To put it less positively: “derivative” and at times “cliché.”

Both composer and pianist are obviously totally involved with a certain Christian mystical communion with their beliefs. This allies them with Bach and Messiaen (a large influence on Shinuh Lee), and that is not bad company at all. Wasn’t it Stravinsky who said “Steal only from the best.”?

Shinuh Lee’s three Chorale Fantasies are ambitious works, difficult to play, but somewhat unwieldy in their attempt to illustrate religious mysticism with musical tones. She is very lucky indeed to have such a gloriously gifted pianist as Hyojung Huh as her advocate.

The three works were played in the reverse order of their composition. The third Fantasy “Alleluia,” began with impressionistic sounds, awash in pedal. Someone should show Ms. Huh how to release the pedal without the annoying “damper catch” sound at the end, for it detracted from the rapt intensity of the lingering resonances. Birdsong made its entrance (Messiaen), and mostly one was reminded of Scriabin and Debussy. At times, a simplistic interruption was heard in imitating voices. Much of the time, I wanted Ms. Lee to stay with one idea longer. However, at other times I wished certain passages were better edited. This fantasy didn’t really sound like what the word “Alleluia” denotes to me (and did to the early Christians): joy and triumph.

The second fantasy, “The Collar,” was based on a not-very-subtle mystical poem by 17th century poet George Herbert. I was an English minor in college, and even I find Herbert rough going today. How all this became music was again, a matter of subjective opinion. The poem tells of the weary, cynical poet who is lamenting his sterility, when suddenly he listens and there is the voice of God calling him “Child.” The “collar” is the restraining device that keeps us connected to our divinity, but that makes us seem like dogs, doesn’t it? Of course, clerics wear collars too. In this work, influences included: Copland (Piano Variations), Boulez (without the intellectual rigor), Bartók, and Prokofiev. It was uneven in its pacing, not Ms. Huh’s fault, who, by the way, played the entire incredibly complex evening from memory.

After intermission came the first Fantasy “Comfort, comfort my people,” based on selections from the Bible. Each section has a subtitle taken from The Screwtape Letters by mystic author C.S. Lewis. Here, Ms. Lee introduced her own original chorale melody to serve as intermezzi between the more tempestuous sections dealing with man’s sinful nature. Eventually she quoted from Bach himself-Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in the bonds of death, used in Cantata BWV4), and the comparison was not kind to Ms. Lee’s own chorale, which was bland by comparison. Her influences here seemed to be: Prokofiev (the “Montagues and Capulets,” from Romeo and Juliet), Ginastera, Bach-Busoni, Rachmaninoff, and Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (Twenty Looks at the Baby Jesus, which sounded more like a borrowing rather than a mere influence). Ms. Huh had the opportunity to use some fierce fist-clusters in the lowest register of the piano; and I must say Ms. Lee’s use of the total instrument and its color possibilities was most attractive. I just wish that her compositional voice was more original.

As for Ms. Huh, I’d dearly love her to give a recital of more varied fare, without abandoning her muse, Ms Lee. Bach, late-period Liszt, Messiaen, Scriabin would all suit her. Ms. Huh, as George Herbert said: “There is fruit, and thou hast hands.”

Hyojung Huh CD in Review

Hyojung Huh, piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, N.Y.
March 13, 2013
Hyojung Huh ,Pianist

Hyojung Huh ,Pianist


Korean pianist Hyojung Huh gave a debut in New York this Spring that introduced not only herself as a performer, but also, in the second half, the ten-movement, forty-five-minute Chorale Fantasy of contemporary Korean composer, Shinuh Lee, entitled “Comfort, comfort my people.”  While I missed the concert itself, I was assigned to review an unedited CD of it and found much to admire. While CD recordings almost inevitably miss the energy of a live performance itself, they do enable the multiple hearings one usually needs with new works. Ms. Huh holds an impressive array of degrees as a pianist, including B.M. and M.M. from Seoul National University, M.M. from Westminster Choir College, and P.D. (Performer Diploma) from Indiana University-Bloomington, in addition to an imminent D.M.A. from the University of Wisconsin where she is a doctoral candidate; in addition, though, Ms. Huh has earned degrees in aesthetics, sacred music, and choral conducting, all of which seem to make her a natural fit for the New York Premiere of Ms. Lee’s imposing,  Biblically-inspired Chorale Fantasy.  Drawn by musical and theological interests (having already done Masters studies on Messiaen in relation to Catholic ontology, liturgy and Biblical language), Ms. Huh is currently working on a dissertation offering a metaphysical and theological perspective on the Shinuh Lee composition performed in this recital, a work which does bear some kinship with works of Messiaen himself.  So, rarely will one see a confluence of such well-matched forces – the pianist, the composer, and the central inspiration of the work all in perfect synch.

Hyojung Huh ,Pianist

Hyojung Huh ,Pianist

In laic terms, the work is an intensely dramatic one, alternating evocations of fire and brimstone with those of ethereal peace, created brilliantly by Ms. Lee and conveyed sympathetically and passionately by Ms. Huh. The first movement is entitled “A brimful living chalice of despair and horror and astonishment.” The movement lived up to its title. Vivid in its thunderous and dissonant virtuoso writing, it alternated bass chants against smoldering trills and tremolos with nightmarishly unrelenting rhythms that were sometimes reminiscent of Ligeti’s “L’escalier du diable” to this listener. Comparisons are for expedience – not to suggest that the work is derivative – so I’ll also be forgiven for comparing some of Ms. Lee’s stomping martial accompaniments to Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets” in their savagery. The overall effect was harrowing. Sheer terror yielded wonderfully in the second movement to a feeling of post-apocalyptic quiet. Entitled “Lord Have Mercy”, this prayerfully simple A-flat major Chorale (towards the end reappearing in A major) developed over a pulsating pedal point into a Brahmsian meditation that might make a jaded listener flinch at such sweetness, were it not in juxtaposition to the ferocious first movement.  Ms. Huh also gave it a pacing which prevented any feeling of glibness. Limitless emotional range, here and in the rest of the work, was matched by an arsenal of several centuries of musical techniques and styles, from early chant, to Bach, through the moderns (even hints of Einojuhani Rautavaara), all integrated organically. The work is quite a journey, and Ms. Huh was up to the task of guiding us through it – performing from memory, no less! Undoubtedly she will bring this work to many venues. Some choices in text will be challenging and controversial to many – and they frankly could prevent widespread acceptance of it – but the music itself could be imagined to depict numerous stirring but more widely applicable Bible verses, should changes be made at some point. Universal acceptance, however, does not appear to be the goal here. Remaining open-minded about new music can be one of the big challenges in reviewing, but the same applies to new interpretations of “old” music, which one also encountered in this recital. Ms. Huh’s first half, consisting of the oft-heard “Jeux D’eau” of Ravel and ubiquitous Symphonic Etudes of Schumann, was unconventionally played. Jeux d’eau (translated sometimes as “Fountains” or “Playings of Water”) was not the sort of sweeping, watery interpretation to which I’m accustomed.  My first reaction was that it needed more flow, flexibility, and the qualities that one associates with water; instead, this performance struck one as a bit stolid, on the slow side, and rather careful; on rethinking it, however, Ms. Huh’s was an interpretation that may have simply been focused more on the individual droplets, each in imagined crystalline perfection. Having not heard the concert live, but catching the tonal beauty of individual notes nonetheless, I’m inclined to give the performer the benefit of the doubt! Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes similarly seemed overly cautious.  In this case, due to some weak spots where tempi fluctuated and some messiness ensued, one imagines that there is simply a need to live with the piece longer. The additional Posthumous Etudes (Nos. II and V) were much appreciated, as they are often omitted, but suffice it to say that the Shinuh Lee work will be what is best remembered of this recital.  That is no small achievement.

New York Concert Artists and Associates: Evenings of Piano Concerti, Season V in Review

New York Concert Artists and Associates: Evenings of Piano Concerti, Season V
Good Shepherd-Faith Presbyterian Church, New York, N.Y.
May 24, 2013

New York Concert Artists and Associates continued its fifth season of concerto evenings with four staples of the piano concerto repertoire – the Schumann Concerto, the Saint-Saëns No. 2, and the 3rd and 5th by Beethoven. Combining forces with the NYCA Symphony Orchestra under excellent conductor, Eduard Zilberkant, were four young female pianists, all with impressive lists of accolades and all pursuing a doctorate or having earned one. If one needed an evidence of the difficulty of distinguishing oneself in classical music these days, one would need to look no further than the collective biographies of these young pianists. The proliferation of credentials and increased need for opportunities today underscore the value of NYCA’s mission to promote the next generation’s performers. While this evening was not one of the best in memory by this organization, one did come away thinking that the valuable orchestral experience was bound to enrich and refine the playing of each of the soloists.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous review, there are hazards in presenting so many concerti in one evening, not the least of which is a sense of haste that can beset even the most seasoned performers. There was just such a sense of haste, on this occasion, which seemed to affect all of the performances in some way or other.

Yu Jung Park, began the evening with Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3 in C minor.  A work requiring a dark intensity and drama, it also requires a fierce impetus in the opening scales of the first movement; it is easy, though, to go overboard into the realm of rushing, and this seemed to be what happened. What at first was a minor discrepancy of tempo between soloist and orchestra escalated into a generally unsettled feeling that eventually took the movement off the rails. All was recovered expertly, but it is hard to recover completely from the general skittishness that results from such an occurrence. In and out of it all, one appreciated the pianist’s excellent finger work, and where she was alone, for example in the cadenza of the first movement, she seemed to find her comfort zone. It will be a joy to hear this pianist again, because she has much to offer. Her slow movement displayed beautiful sensitivity to harmonic changes, and she finished the work in fine form. She is currently working toward a DMA at Temple University, having already attended Peabody and the Korean National University of Arts. Her wide-ranging musical interests currently include Dutilleux and Liszt transcriptions of Beethoven.

The next performer, Sarah Chan, also has run the gamut credential-wise. She has earned Music degrees from the Manhattan School of Music, Peabody, and Eastman (where she obtained her doctorate), with additional studies at Le Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris and at the University of Michigan. She has pursued and extra-musical education at the Sorbonne, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan, and she currently teaches music and French courses at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. Her Schumann Concerto had much to admire but also did not seem impervious to the spirit of dispatch that pervaded the evening. Some minor glitches, which appeared in an otherwise exciting performance, could have been avoided with just a bit more breathing room, and some climaxes could have been more potent if achieved through dynamic building rather than acceleration. Inevitably with more performance of this work there will emerge a bit more dovetailing as the lead role is passed from piano to orchestra and back, but it showed plenty of spirit and pianism, ending the first half well.

Perhaps the strongest contribution of the evening in terms of neatness and technical reliability was from Hyojung Huh, in the Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor. Again, listing myriad credentials, including degrees from Seoul National University, Westminster Choir College, Indiana University, and the University of Wisconsin (in subjects including choral conducting and sacred music), she demonstrated a thoroughness and seriousness of approach that carried her from start to brilliant finish. One might have wanted a bit more power to balance the orchestra, less understatement in the first movement’s effusive melodies, and a bit more joie de vivre in the work’s jaunty scherzando movement, but all in all one received the “bang for the buck” that one hopes for in this delightful piece.

The final performer of the evening was Do Haeng Jung in Beethoven’s Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major (the “Emperor”). One appreciated from the start the fact that this performer took considerable time before and during the opening. This piece requires mature pacing, and it received it. It also received a big, full sound that set the tone for the nobility in this piece. Sure enough, there was again the almost obligatory snag in the first movement, but the pianist recovered to regain complete composure in the two next movements. Glancing through Ms. Jung’s biography, one reads that she has degrees from the Seoul National University and the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, the latter where she is also pursuing her doctorate. What catches one’s eye is the mention of awards in collaborative performance, in addition to the usual solo prizes; indeed, Ms. Jung demonstrated a flexibility which helped hold the performance together and will continue to serve her in good stead as a concerto soloist. She ended the evening with a solid and bravura performance, receiving generous applause that undoubtedly was intended to include the cumulative efforts of the night and the close to a fine NYCA season.