Washington Classical Review »Blog Archive» Min Kwon Brings “America / Beautiful” Project to Phillips Collection

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Min Kwon presented her “America / Beautiful” project on Sunday at the Phillips Collection. Photo: Dominic Mann Visuals

American pianist Min Kwon took advantage of the end of the pandemic to launch a commission project which she titled America / Beautiful. At this point, 75 composers have responded by composing new pieces inspired by the melody of “America the Beautiful”. After a debut online this summer, Kwon took the project on tour, including a stop at the Phillips Collection for a recital broadcast live on Sunday afternoon.

Kwon is a longtime admirer of the melody of “America the Beautiful”, originally composed for words other than the patriotic poem written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893, during a visit to Pikes Peak. In a way, Kwon brought the famous hymn home: Kwon teaches at Rutgers in New Jersey, the state where Samuel A. Ward was conductor when he wrote the tune in 1882.

Most composers have focused on combining two signature intervals in the melody, a descending minor third followed by a descending perfect fourth. This motif is heard three times in the hymn, at the words “O beautiful, for spacious heavens” (repeated at “For the majesties of the purple mountains”) and again at “And crown your good with brotherhood”. In the pieces presented, we could hear these elements filtered through a kaleidoscope of musical styles.

Kwon selected three sets of plays, saying they represented three different feelings to her about America: dark apprehension, hope, and then light fun. John Harbison wrote the first track, “Take Over America,” for the right hand alone. Kwon brought out both the melody, defined simply, and the zipped, ragtime-inspired garments that surround it with utter clarity.

Richard Danielpour’s “DESECRATION” combined the melody, in the upper register of the piano, with threatening nuances in the bass. This worry clashed dissonantly on the air, though it returned serenely at the end. Judith Lang Zaimont’s “In Darkness Veiled” provided a counterweight, playing with the melody in minor key and in a fantasy style reminiscent of Rachmaninoff.

Vijay Iyer went in a similar direction in “Crown Thy Good”, with the melody spun into a sort of minor cantillation, spread out in clusters by the sustain pedal. With a repeating harmonic pattern underlying the piece, Kwon gave it the impression of improvisation, an ostinato of repeated notes amplifying the midsection. David Serkin Ludwig echoed the sense of mourning cantillation in his variation, “QaddiÅ¡”, sounding a distant echo on dissonant thunder.

Hope appeared in the middle of the program, first in the form of pulsating accompaniment motifs on the minor third of Huang Ruo’s “Meditation on America the Beautiful”, in an energetic minimalist repetition. Nico Muhly’s “REFINE” struck the same minimalist rehearsal vibe, with simpler tuning of the melody in extended harmonies.

A highlight came in “23 Variations on America” ​​by Sebastian Currier, a tasting menu of aggressive mini-variations in a dizzying array of musical styles. Kwon tamed all the considerable virtuoso demands of the piece, evoking Webern, Bartók, Stravinsky and others, with fierce technical skill.

In Lei Liang’s “America the Beautiful… Devastatingly Calm”, Kwon chose the melody delicately and spaced it out over anxious silences, the una corda pedal cutting off the sound. The occasional loud banging included a thud on a string damped by his hand under the piano cover. Liang was the first composer on this program to draw notably on what is perhaps the most characteristic interval of the air, the sixth major opening the chorus “America, America”.

Greg Sandow’s “America Slow Dance and 12-tone America” ​​kicked off the fun ending section of the recital, refracting the melody through the lenses of 1950s doo-wop and, for something completely different, Webern’s twelve-tone process. . In “Amber (Variation)”, Libby Larsen gets credit for riffing on a different section of the melody, the ascending scale to the words “for waves of amber grain”. Kwon brought out the rustle of a prairie wheat field in the rising scales.

Two of the strongest pieces came towards the end, starting with “America the Polarized” by Texu Kim, a Korean-born composer who just became a US citizen. In the style of a big-hearted Lisztian paraphrase, Kim brought together pieces of the melody with other music, most openly “Für Elise” by Beethoven. Trevor Weston “A Fantasy on America” ​​has chosen different influences, from a toccata à la Prokofiev to a Gershwin fantasy and Caribbean rhythms.

Victoria Bond’s “Sea to Shining Sea” gave Kwon a perfect patriotic centerpiece to wrap up the released program. After reaching an initial climax on that wide sixth major interval of the hymn’s chorus, Kwon embarked on an ecstatic bell-shaped ostinato to the motif of “from sea to shining sea”. This cheerful gaiety was immediately counterbalanced by Timo Andres’ “American Coda”, in which a singing theme, subtly alluding to the hymn, was gradually engulfed by a tumultuous bass cacophony.

Not wanting to leave the listener with this disturbing emotion, Kwon offered John Musto’s tongue-in-cheek “Habanera” as a reminder. Putting the tune of the anthem like a rag with Cuban accents, it provided the afternoon’s biggest whimsy.

The Phillips Collection presents a recital by pianist Kit Armstrong, on the theme of images in music, at 4 p.m. on October 24. The museum’s Sunday concert series will reopen to a limited audience from November 2. phillipscollection.org

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