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Composed of a diverse group of polished musicians, the conductor-less Sejong Soloists is showing the world that classical music can be rock star cool.
by Elizabeth Eun
photos courtesy of Sejong Soloists
A few years ago, when the Sejong Soloists played a concert before a crowd of 800 at a high school in Busan, South Korea, there was something noticeably unbalanced about the audience: It was 95 percent female. So perhaps the musical group shouldn’t have been so surprised when throngs of teenage girls began mobbing the members for autographs and photos after the concert.
“It was like being a rock star,” recalled Adam Barnett-Hart, a member of the group. But what made this reception so “weird,” to use the choice word of Barnett-Hart, is that Sejong Soloists is a string orchestra. The New York-based ensemble of violinists, cellists, violists and bassists plays classical music to the tune of Haydn and Mendelssohn. Still, though the Soloists don’t rock out, its sound obviously moves people, and not just teenage girls. Music critics have called the group’s work “vibrant” and even “miraculous.”
Since its inception in 1995, the orchestra (formerly known as the International Sejong Soloists) has performed sold-out concerts across the globe, including performances at Carnegie Hall in New York, Wigmore Hall in London and the Salle Gaveau in Paris. The group’s broad appeal matches well with its mission statement, as envisioned by artistic director Hyo Kang, a renowned violin professor at Yale and Juilliard who founded the Soloists to serve as a musical ambassador to the world.
“In 1995, I had been teaching at Juilliard for about 20 years. Over the years, I saw so many excellent string players going through the school,” said Kang. “I wanted to get these [high] caliber players together to form a dream ensemble.”
The result has been a group composed of 14 to 20 artists, each of whom, though rotating in and out for various tours and performances, is expected to
maintain an extremely high level of musicianship. And, though named after the Korean emperor Sejong, under whose leadership a renaissance-like period took place, the orchestra’s members are multiethnic and multicultural.
“Everybody is such a great musician, and we work so well together because we respect each other,” said Ji In Yang, a violinist for the Soloists. “We try to have a different color and different effect on each piece, even each movement,” described Yang, who moved to the United States from Seoul as a teenager for the express purpose of studying with Kang. “We try to unite our ideas about the piece, mood and character.”
That’s an especially challenging task given that this orchestra plays without a conductor. In fact, it’s one of the largest ensembles to do so. Typically, an orchestra sans a conductor might be as organized as a nursery bereft of a nanny, but the Sejong musicians seem to thrive because of that absence.
“When you have a conductor, it takes [away] all the decisions, so the people in the orchestra don’t have much say,” said Pierre Lapointe, a violist with the group. “But with Sejong, it’s not like that. Everyone can say what they think [about] a specific passage, and we discuss it and try it. I like that the best. When there is a conductor, it’s sometimes a little easier to put things together, but in some ways, it’s manufactured. It’s better if it comes from an understanding of the music. It takes a little longer to achieve, but in my opinion, it sounds better.”
The conductorless group doesn’t come without its share of challenges, though, especially when tackling particularly difficult pieces. But according to Barnett-Hart, it’s simply a matter of more practices with a metronome and a higher level of diligence. The result musically is a sound that has a free quality, even as it’s played to meticulous perfection.
“I love the variety of sounds you get,” said Fred Childs, host of National Public Radio’s Performance Today, commenting on the group back in 2003. The Soloists has been featured regularly on the NPR show. “On the one hand, you get this wonderful, big string sound. There are moments when I’d swear there are 60 players here. And then there are other times when it has the tightness and the concision of a string quartet.”
The ensemble plays well-known classical pieces, such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but Kang also commissions new repertoire, including Four Seasons of Pyeong Chang from respected South Korean composer Sukhi Kang, for the Soloists to debut around the world. At its concert in Cerritos, Calif., later this month, the group will be playing yet another version of Vivaldi’s iconic concertos, The Four Seasons of Buenos Aries by Astor Piazzolla, one of violinist Yang’s favorite pieces.
“Everyone, even without their knowing [the composition’s name], knows Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The material is from that, but with a tango influence,” said Yang of the Buenos Aires version. “It’s a really cool piece, and I think people will like it.”
The Soloists, who has recorded four albums and collaborated with respected artists like Joshua Bell, Robert Blocker, Sarah Chang and Kyung Wha Chung, will also be performing a Mendelssohn concerto that evening with internationally acclaimed pianist Orli Shaham.
The Sejong Soloists will be playing at the Cerritos Center for Performing Arts on Friday, April 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at www.cerritoscenter.com.