“Expect the unexpected” could easily be the slogan of Joseph Waters’ annual NWEAMO Festival. Friday’s opening concert of the 2019 festival presented ensemble PHASE, a quintet of Korean musicians performing on traditional Korean instruments that filled San Diego State University’s Smith Recital Hall with bright, piquant, exotic sounds and modalities.
Ensemble PHASE is centered around two treble melodic instruments, the haegeum, a bowed, two-string fiddle, and the daegeum, a bamboo transverse flute. Their music is grounded by two continuo instruments, the gayageum and the geomungo: plucked, zither-like strings that, like the Japanese koto, are related to the ancient Chinese guquin, an instrument developed several centuries B.C.E. To add color, two other melodic instruments, the small double-reed piri and a reedy mouth organ, the saenghwang, participated in the ensemble, as well as an assertive sounding janggu, a two-headed drum.
Dipping gently into Korean music history, ensemble PHASE opened with “Cheon-nyeon-man-se,” two contrasting movements of late 18th-century Korean chamber music that used all five players, but featured haegeum virtuosa Jeonghyeon Joo. Kilyong Chae demonstrated both his agile technique and the versatility of the daegeum—breathy, dark colors in its low range and bright piccolo-sounding tones in its high range—in a poetic solo titled “Karma,” written by Yesong Ra. Minseop Song helped shape the piece with impassioned drumming on the janggu.
Geoffrey Burleson, the New York based pianist who is regularly featured as a NWEAMO performer, joined ensemble PHASE in two works, Minseop Song’s “Chamber Music for Haegeum Magogut” and Joseph Waters’ “Air Earth Ocean.” An animated, bustling piece, Song’s “Chamber Music” suggested the freedom and soloistic exchanges of straight-ahead jazz. Burleson’s athletic piano declarations were met by racing themes and trills from Kilyong Chae and robust figurations from Nayeong Park’s haegeum and Jeongmin Park’s geomungo. A meditative center section featured Joo’s plaintive, languid solos on haegeum.
Waters’ more restrained “Air Earth Ocean,” a cleanly delineated trio for piano, piri and haegeum, elicited ardent expression from each performer, especially Minseop Song on piri. Joo’s intense solo theme propelled Taeil Lee’s “Narke,” prompting the other members of the quintet to elaborate her lead before giving way to her elaborate cadenza.
Sangbin Patrick Lee’s “Artist Cemetery” offered discrete islands of intense sounds that brought to mind the style of the contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág. For this string ensemble piece, Song played saenghwang, which added a more penetrating color that was pleasantly challenged by agitated strumming form the continuo players Park and Park.
This concert was presented by NWEAMO 2019 and the San Diego State University School of Music in Smith Recital Hall on Saturday, April 26. The NWEAMO Festival continues through Sunday, April 28, 2019 in the same venue.