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Concert review

Kwon’s “America/Beautiful” project finds fresh musical life in Ward’s patriotic ode

Fri Jul 09, 2021 at 11:58 am
Pianist Min Kwon performed at the Green-Wood Cemetery catacombs for Death of Classical Thursday night.

Death of Classical presents concerts in a crypt and, as it did Thursday evening, in the catacombs at Green-Wood Cemetery. 

Yet Death of Classical puts a substantial amount of live, new classical music in front of audiences. And so pianist Min Kwon’s program, the America/Beautiful Project, was an ideal subject in more ways than one.

Being in the catacombs for yet another step in the return of concert life after an awful year was the kind of memento mori that makes the long tradition of classical music vivid, and Kwon’s project—which she described as taking nine months to gestate—is a product of an inward-turning exploration during pandemic isolation. As can be seen on the projects website, america-beautiful.com, Kwon worked with dozens of composers, remotely, to bring out new works based on “America The Beautiful,” by Katherine Lee Bates and Samuel Ward.

Thursday she played ten of these premieres in the first of two sets (the second repeated the first, and Friday she plays ten other pieces, again in two sets). Each composer took a different creative approach to working with the original song, so it was striking how the most affecting music all had a fundamental thing in common, the basic technical approach of working explicitly with the tune in variation form. It was a real life lesson of the eternal artistic truth that limits are a prerequisite for the deepest kind of creativity. And there’s little in compositional form more creative than taking apart and reassembling a single idea until it delivers deep meaning.

Fred Rzewski’s spirit sat unobtrusively in the back of the catacombs. His The People United Will Never Be Defeated! was a precursor to this project, whether or not that was a conscious guideline for Kwon and the composers. But take a song that is both musically beautiful and socially meaningful, run it through the type of variations that are the bread and butter of compositional practice, and the force of meaning is transmuted into a new context and perspective.

The shape of the program brought this to the fore. Kwon, playing clearly and with alert attention to dynamics in the reverberant space, opened with Leila Adu-Gilmore’s United Underdog, a fierce anthem of crashing dissonant chords and forearm clusters. Kwon held down the final mass of notes as the overtones twisted into nothingness. It was like screaming out a year’s worth of anger and frustration, opening up a calm, but strong, space.

More impressionistic music followed, pieces from David Serkin Ludwig, Charles Coleman, and Jessica Meyer that were fantasies on the original tune. Ludwig’s gentle Qaddiš was dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Coleman’s To Be Beautiful had a lovely quality of variations coming out of the tune echoing and reflecting back on itself. Meyer’s Halcyon Skies had the clearest dramatic narrative yet, and the rise and exhalation of the music was a prelude to the core of the program.

That came through music from Patricio Molina (Arabic Homage to America), Juri Seo (America the Beautiful: “sotto voce”), and Trevor Weston (A Fantasy on America). Each of these used formal devices and rigor to bring out expansive, complex, and deep responses, a la Rzewski. Molina mixed the original tune together with an Arabic scale, and the melodic technique of repeating notes, Seo lingered on the opening descending minor third and perfect fourth intervals, then spun them out like Ravel, while Weston connected that same minor third to the blues, though the great strength of his version was its rhythmic determination. Each of these composers put a clear personal stamp on the music, identifying just what was most beautiful to them and through that expressing clear aesthetic and social values.

Following these far-flung variations, the concert did drift for a bit. Kwon played Qasim Naqvi’s America The and Greg Sandow’s America Slow Dance and 12-Tone America, both of which felt out of place. Naqvi came to prominence as the drummer in the post-rock trio Dawn of MIDI, and since then has been on a path as a fledgling composer. He approached the original tune by altering the harmonies, and in this company it came off as simplistic, a student work. Still, this was his most coherent composition one had yet heard. Sandow, in contrast, was too composerly by half, showing that he could arrange the tune into some kind of ersatz Flamingos-style doo-wop, and also force it into atonality. The previous music was about what the composers thought about the original song and about America; these pieces were about what they thought about themselves as composers.

Victoria Bond’s Sea to Shining Sea brought everything back to the central focus. Bond, in the house like many of the featured composers, described it as a mini-drama, and there was a clear and skillful musical narrative. “America The Beautiful” is about something, and this last work was of a piece with the best music on the concert, which was all about what the artists found beautiful about this country.

Min Kwon plays “America/Beautiful” at Green-Wood Cemetery, 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday. deathofclassical.com

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