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Concert Review: From the Sixth Hour: A Piano Quartet, Atlantic Music Festival, 8/3/11

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This past summer, I had the opportunity to hear the piano quartet piece From the Sixth Hour at the Atlantic Music Festival. This festival meets every year at Colby College, Maine, for a wonderful four weeks of free classical music concerts open to the public. This piece was featured at the last marathon chamber concert on August 3, 2011, running from 7:00 PM to past midnight. I was not one of the brave souls who dared to stay the entire time, but what I heard was a wonderful combination of old and new music, excellently communicated to a responsive audience.

This particular piece was composed by AMF’s artistic director, Solbong Kim, a graduate in composition from the renowned Curtis Institute. As an active composer, he has written many pieces for chamber and orchestra, had his works performed and recorded by various music groups, and he has been the recipient of many prestigious composition awards, such as the Presser Music Award in 2005. His works have been much admired for their sophistication, and it is easy to see why.

From the Sixth Hour was performed by Sang Woo Kang, pianist; Dennis Kim, violinist; Pu Reum Cho, violist; and Marco Pereira, cellist. They were an excellent group of players. A note about the selection of performers: it was a diverse mix of musicians from various stages in their careers, as well as originating from different countries. Kim and Kang are established musicians. Kim is the concertmaster of the Tampere Orchestra in Finland, and Kang is a concert pianist and professor of music at Providence College in Rhode Island. Pereira, a professional cellist and likewise an established musician, hails from Portugal, while Cho, at the age of 19, was easily the youngest person in the grouping, and hailed from South Korea. They were a wonderful representation of the diversity of the musicians at this music festival.

I personally am rather curious about the inspiration of the piece. The title, From the Sixth Hour, seems to refer to Matthew 27:45. “From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land.” (KJV) This would translate to noon until three in the afternoon, or the time right before Jesus died. There’s a possible spiritual inspiration at play here, which is not surprising considering that some of Kim’s best known pieces stem from religious influences, such as the Credo for orchestra.

The first movement, “Viva Metropolis,” seems to evoke the idea of life in the city with all of its bustle. It starts with dissonant chords in the piano part before being joined by the strings. Outright, the piano has a sort of wandering, playful, slightly minorish melody that is echoed by various string players. Kang’s playing was superb in this movement, bringing out the delicate motives in the higher register, lines that the strings supported, and then followed. There was something I found about the rhythms and the melodic figurations of the piano part that I found particularly catchy, not to mention exciting.

The second movement, “Beneath the Meadow,” was more quiet and meditative. This is the typical “second movement,” framed by two louder, more exciting movements. From the city, we turn to the meadow, and the contrast between the two movements reflects this shift. And yet I found this movement painstakingly beautiful in its seeming simplicity. Here there is a trade-off: the strings, and particularly Pereira on the cello, have the melody while the pianist supports their movement with quiet, well-placed chords. 

“Incubus Ritual,” the third movement, is a bit of a mystery to me. I Googled “incubus” and found a lot of definitions of “incubi” as evil spirits that lay on top of people (particularly women) when they slept. Incubi were typically nightmarish, oppressive presences. Often people would use a ritual to summon an incubus, for whatever reason, or to exorcise one. I’d think it would be the latter. Yet the melody in the piano line in the very opening is playful rather than sinister, as I’d think an incubus ritual would be (in either sense). The heavily rhythmic agitation stirred up by the strings throughout does evoke the sense of the ritual.

However, all things considered, I do believe it truly is a great little movement. Here Kang was at his most playful, bringing out wonderfully the dancing figurations in the upper register (again, as in the first movement, with little melodic motives that suggest themes from the first movement). His dynamic playing led to a lovely back and forth between the strings and the piano at regular intervals. In other parts, the strings seemed to lend this undercurrent of agitation throughout, with the piano and its shimmering glissandos and sprightly melodic motifs above. Gradually the piece ascends to a climatic state of dull, pounding agitation that is resolved. I found it wonderfully catchy, and it’s my personal favorite.

Together this amounted to a stunning performance of a wonderful piece. If anyone is in the area next summer, I would recommend the festival. 

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About Valerie Norton