One World Symphony: Sung Jin Hong & One World Symphony
One World Symphony

Overseen by its creator and conductor Sung Jin Hong, the New York-based One World Symphony is dedicated to “integrating itself into the fabric of the community through adventurous programming, inspiring performances, benefit concerts, and audience and community engagement.” That its programming is bold is borne out by the selections included on the company's debut CD, and its magnanimous side is impressively documented in the thousands of dollars benefit concerts have generated for a multitude of organizations and causes; in fact, all net proceeds from the debut album will be passed on to NYC's Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen.

A number of other things help make One World Symphony stand out from the crowd. Works by living composers such as John Adams, John Corigliano, George Crumb, John Harbison, Steve Reich, Kaija Saariaho, and others are performed, but so too are compositions by Sung Jin Hong himself. On the hour-long CD, four different works by the composer-conductor are presented (selections from Rite of the Cicada, Breaking Bad—Ozymandias, Eye of the Storm, and Edge), along with samplings of material by Ravel (Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2), Stravinsky (The Firebird), Britten (Peter Grimes), and Gershwin (“Summertime” from Porgy and Bess).

The idea of doing a five-movement opera inspired by Vince Gilligan's TV series Breaking Bad and Shelley's sonnet Ozymandias is certainly an inspired enough notion, and it's easy to visualize characters like Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, and Skyler White acting out their intensely dramatic conflicts onstage. In his 2014 treatment of the Breaking Bad saga, Sung Jin Hong uses it as a vehicle for exploring moral issues and the Greek theme of hubris. In the opening movement “Chemistry,” he fashions a Heisenberg Chord as a motif representing Walter's “I am the danger” and conveys foreboding and chaos in the obsessive and sometimes eruptive patterns of the strings and horns. Featuring Jose Pierti-Coimbre as Walt and Adrienne Metzinger as Skyler, the vocal-rich excerpt from the third movement “The Moment” is less disturbing by comparison, though some degree of unease is still felt in the hushed and lyrical music's delicate unfolding.

Inspired by Sung Jin Hong's return after twenty-five years to his homeland Korea and his visit to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), 2010's Eye of the Storm is a kaleidoscopic tone painting that draws upon a number of experiences, including the sounds of Korean drummers and visits to a Buddhist temple and his grandfather's grave. Richly evocative and emotional, the material—though a seven-minute sampling only—speaks strongly on behalf of the conductor's composing ability. “Meditation-Arohati” from 2013's Rite of the Cicada is his attempt to render in orchestral form the cicada's life cycle, one that depicts the creature emerging from seventeen long years of slumber and molting out of its shell for two weeks of flying and procreation. His final piece on the recording is Edge, a 2013 monodrama for vocalist and symphony based on Sylvia Plath's final poem that finds soprano Sara Paar convincingly conveying the turbulent emotional character of the source material.

There is a downside to the album's sampler-styled approach. Including small sections taken from larger works is like giving the listener multiple small portions in place of a full-course meal, with the result that a broader range of tastes is ingested but at the expense of a full, satisfying meal. There's nothing objectionable about including two excerpts from Breaking Bad—Ozymandias, but the listener isn't presented with enough material to develop an in-depth sense of the work in question, and much the same could be said with respect to the Eye of the Storm and Edge. Perhaps the better strategy would have been to exclude the familiar pieces by Stravinsky et al. and concentrate on a full-fledged presentation of one original composition. To cite one possible scenario, had the release presented Breaking Bad—Ozymandias in its entirety, the listener would have been able to gain an appreciation for the work as a whole and develop a more complete impression of Sung Jin Hong as a composer. Furthermore, little of dramatic import is gained in having brief excerpts from The Firebird (the finale, for the record) and Peter Grimes (the instrumental “Storm” section) appear beyond suggesting the range of the symphony's repertoire. That said, there's no doubting the visceral power of its reading of Ravel's “Danse generale,” especially when the orchestra's forces are abetted by the One World Symphony Chorus.

Another questionable move has to do with the sound presentation. The album has been released in an intentionally unmastered form, the rationale being that Sung Jin Hong wanted to honestly capture the live performance experience and present the material in an unsanitized and uncensored form. While that's certainly a laudable justification, the material sonically suffers in sounding rather flat and in lacking the richness and dimensionality that would have resulted from a more conventional production approach.

December 2014