The Wall Street Journal
By Stuart Isacoff
March 3, 2011
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Poignant Songs for a People Divided

Huijin Wang/Korea Times LA
Huijin Wang/Korea Times LA
Jennifer Koh and Mark Grey explore the human toll of two Koreas.

It's easy to view acts of civil war on the Korean peninsula in strictly political terms: a thriving, free South perpetually threatened by an intransigent and incomprehensibly brutal North. Yet often missed are the personal stories behind these headlines—tales of human struggle, heartbreak and triumph; of families torn asunder and arduous journeys undertaken to reunite them.

But where politics fail, art steps in. "Mugunghwa: Rose of Sharon," for chorus and violin by composer Mark Grey, is based on the letters and poems of Kim Namsoo, tracing his struggles to rejoin his kin. The work is filled with poignant reminders of the human toll of the conflict: "a shattered bridge / on the curvy Great East river, / haggard eyes left to die / next to train tracks, / for those feeble souls / who wait for their last gasps, / the aches of my homeland." "Mugunghwa" will be performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale and violinist Jennifer Koh on Sunday in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The project originated from a chance meeting between Mr. Grey and Ms. Koh. "I bumped into Jennifer on the street in Baltimore," he recalls. "I was working with the Baltimore Symphony. We had coffee, and expressed an interest in working together. We had known each other for years, but I had a lot of questions about her background. Half of her family comes from North Korea, and half from the South. I realized that all of my Korean-American friends have similar stories. Millions fled the North and there was a mass migration—and many families were ripped apart."

For Ms. Koh, it was a subject long delayed. "My mom became ill a couple of years ago," she says, "and that's when I started studying Korean culture, because I realized I had become disconnected from my roots. I came to an understanding of what my people went through partly by reading Holocaust literature—many Koreans still don't know whether their relatives are alive or dead. I wanted this work to help people relate to what has happened."

The title of the piece is the name of the national flower of Korea—known here as the Hibiscus syriacus. It serves as a potent emblem of the hopes of a people partly because, as Mr. Grey says, "flowers have no borders." Woo Sung-lee, director of the Korean Cultural Service in New York, points to the mugunghwa's significance to his country's culture. "We cherish it," he explains. "It symbolizes both the success and the tribulations that Korea has experienced. It's a symbol of national identity."

That identity is embraced by the music, explains the composer. Mr. Grey did not simply quote folk materials—"that would mean pulling the music out of its original context, which is often ceremonial"—but searched for the heart of ancient traditions. "I do look at melodic, harmonic or rhythmic ideas in Korean music and infuse them into a western format," he admits. "There are certain musical intervals that a Korean would recognize. But I feel that this is a nod to the culture without the work becoming trite. The opening and closing of this piece is a translation of a Korean shaman ceremony. In Korea, these are typically performed by women. So Jennifer's violin serves as a shamanic voice. It plays in and out of the text, as a constant point of identity."

After its debut, might this work, with its important message, reach other audiences—on the East Coast, or even in Korea? "We welcome the performance," says South Korean consul-general Kim Jae-soo. "Many Koreans have family members in both Koreas. We think it's going to help. I don't see why it couldn't be performed everywhere."

Mr. Grey, who enjoys a double career as a composer and sound designer (he has worked for composer John Adams in the latter capacity for the past 20 years), previously composed a Navajo oratorio, and he is currently at work on a Persian piece for Carnegie Hall. He says that pursuing such themes gives him an opportunity to explore the American fabric. "I wanted to look at the home base—what this land was built upon," he explains. "I come from European stock. It's a way to educate myself about the wider world in which I live. After all, we're all children of migration. Every time you pass someone on the street, there is a hidden history there. I hope my work affords people who are not from these cultures a moment of real connection."

Mr. Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College conservatories of music and dance (SUNY).

© 2011 The Wall Street Journal

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