The Suwon Civic Chorale Make an Exciting, Cutting-Edge NYC Debut
It’s possible that the best globally-known export from the South Korean city of Suwon is its Civic Chorale, who made an exciting and eclectic debut in New York at Alice Tully Hall last night, meticulously directed by In-Gi Min. That a lush, vividly poignant arrangement of the Agnus Dei section of Samuel Barber’s iconic Adagio for Strings was not the highlight of the program testifies to the diversity of the rest of the bill and the choir’s otherworldly power. In both the 20th century and traditional Korean pieces, both Asian and Western scales were employed, typically within the same work. Both Korean and American composers were represented, and although the Korean works surpassed the American material in terms of edgy harmony and intricate polyphony, every arrangement had something unique and often unusual to offer.
Beyond being simply entertaining, this ensemble can be very funny. The audience chuckled throughout a drolly choreographed Vivian Fung arrangement of a Malaysian monkey dance – guys against the girls – and was equally tickled by not one but three works illustrating birdsong – which the group delivered with an amazing verisimilitude in full-blown stereo. Gyun-Yong Lee’s Bird song featured two pairs of soloists trading off with both each other and the ensemble, with spine-tingling moments from both high soprano and low bass as species from a roc to a phoenix were depicted. By contrast, Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque and Little Birds gave the group a chance to show off their ability to work lustrous, minutely jeweled magic.
The ensemble opened with a rousing yet nuanced arrangement of Airiramg, the only national song that’s a curse, meaning, essentially, “leave me and your feet will hurt before you’ve walked a couple of miles.” The Kyrie from Jong-Sun Park’s Airirang Mass bristled with eerie close harmonies and low/high dynamic tension. Keeyuong Kim’s Dona Nobis Pacem, an elegaic tone poem of sorts sung in the Asian pentatonic scale and dedicated to the victims of the poison gas attacks in Syria, grew in waves to rather harrowing crescendos
The group paired amped-up folk songs: the anthemic, somewhat predictably nostalgic Gagopa (Wishing to Return) and a lumber camp song which literally lumbered, a grim illustration of the arduous conditions faced by rural laborers as the singers literally panted in unison Then Jeeyoung Kim’s Miserere brought back the austere close harmonies and angst
After the Barber, the group sang Shenandoah with a wistful, towrering sway – it was the most traditionally Western piece on the program. The program concluded with Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, delivered with an icepick staccato almost all the way through, to the point where the high and low registers diverged for an all-too-brief, showstopping explosion of voices.
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