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The 17-Year Itch (as well as Scratch)

New York
Church of the Holy Apostles
07/25/2013 -  
Andrew Struck-Marcell: Summer Cloud (World Premiere)
Josquin des Prez: El Grillo
John Dowland: It was a time when silly bees could speak
Béla Bartók: From the Diary of a Fly (World Premiere Orchestration by Sung Jin Hong)
Sung Jin Hong: Rite of the Cicada (World Premiere)
Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3: First section (“Pan Awakes, Summer Marches In”)

Laura Farmer, Dorothy Smith Jacobs, Faith Chyou (Sopranos), Low Key: Will Moller, Ben Piper, Adam Zamora (Tenors), Sam Orleans (Baritone), Josh Ruzansku (Bass) – Chrissy Fong (Flute), Kristi Shade (Harp), Michael Lormand (Trombone)
One World Symphony, Sung Jin Hong (Artistic Director and Conductor)

S. J. Hong with orchestra (© Coco T. Dog)

What a terrific musical year for sanctimonious cicadas.

Exactly two months ago, the Baptist Judson Church gave the world premiere of philosopher/entomologist/composer David Rothernberg’s Insect Music, featuring live cicadas. Last night, the Episcopal Church of the Holy Apostles called Rothenberg’s hand and doubled the stakes not only with Sung Jin Hong’s Rite of the Cicada, but an entire evening devoted to a few of the 15-million individual species of bugs which inhabit out planet.

What most mortals would call a pain, conductor-composer Hong sees as a paean. To nature, artistry and that unique interaction with the audience in which he has triumphed. Until the rise of electronic music, the only composer who had his own orchestra was Joseph Haydn. Sung Jin Hong, though, is not only Music Director of his own 60-piece One World Symphony, but he writes and arranges for it, and chooses audacious (not to say couragous) programs.

Who on this all too vast earth would dare start a concert with music devoted to a swarm of gnats?? The ultimate pests to those sitting in gardens, the insects are, for composer Andrew Struck-Marcell “aggregations of many small things, and the space between these small things.” The image, if not the reality (“SWAT!!”), would please any cosmologist. The composer himself offered a simple and beautiful image itself.

The aural image started with a an ambiguously Oriental melody by flautist Chrissy Fong, filled with trills and vibratos, the melody swooping around the scale. In a few minutes, the flute segued to an equally mysterious wordless song from the back of the church song by Laura Farmer. The two voices were the spatial architecture, the music itself a delightful “bug”-atelle.

From the world premiere we went to history. Josquin des Prez (The Cricket) wrote the oldest homage to insects (we don’t have the music to Aristophanes’ The Wasps), sung by five men including a counter-tenor, as animated and close in harmony as necessary. This was followed with a sweeter tune by John Dowland, with harp taking the place of lute, a swirly rendition by Dorothy Smith Jacobs and Kristi Shade.

Finally the full orchestra joined the concert with Sung Jin Hong’s orchestration of Bartók’s Diary of a Fly. The piano version buzzes along with masses of minor seconds, and Mr. Hong deftly gave those frantic hums to the violins while the orchestra chimed in when necessary. (Mr Hong, something of a showman, partly conducted with a fly-swatter!)

S.J. Hong with cicadas (© Coco T. Dog)

Finally Mr Hong’s two-movement homage to the 17-year-cicada, the bug which erupted with the usual swarms earlier this year. Mr. Hong did not have any live cicadas (though a box of dead ones was loaned to him after the concert). But the second movement title, Liebestod captured the whole post-erupting lifestyle. When they do come out from the 17-year-old sleep, they buzz to each other (not with vocal cords but thorax rubbing), fornicate and die.

It was those sounds which fascinated Mr. Hong and his wife in the Hudson River valley, inspiring this work. The sounds of the audience also attracted him, as he rehearsed us in the Sanskrit word “Arohati” (Rise!), the mantra we gave at the end of the first movement.

Before that, we heard infuriatingly slow rumbling, the movements, the colorful orchestral swirlings which obviously (perhaps too literally) showed our cicadas ready to awaken. When he conducted us to softly and then with ffff fury to command the insects to rise up, the recorded cicada sounds were the results. Quite an effective theater piece.

The Liebestod of course quoted from Wagner, though the lush chords at the end were more like Strauss. (And the lifestyle of the cicada could have emulated Death and Transfiguration). Before that, Sung Jin Hong showed a majestic Hovhaness-style orchestral painting which was indeed quite exciting.

Mr. Hong, by the way, is a terrific conductor in his own way. The faded pink t-shirt is hardly orthodox, nor is his baton-less style. But it seems to work. One would hardly expect him to get the good sounds of the Mahler movement, but–with the firm aid of trombonist Michael Lormand, and the resonance of the church, the Mahler was fairly effective. Admittedly, Mr. Hong was subject to some heavy-handed tempos. But considering all the buzzing, swirling, bombilating, sounds before, our congregation needed to collect our swarm of breaths.

Harry Rolnick



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