The Kennedy Center’s 500-plus-seat Terrace Theater was filled nearly to capacity Wednesday night for soprano Hei-Kyung Hong’s recital of German and Korean art songs, the latter as cherished by and familiar to their compatriots as the former to the large, attentive contingent of lieder lovers in the audience. Who, if they didn’t have one before, gained an appreciation for the Korean songs’ variety, vitality, musicality, and intensity of emotion—and for Hong’s Heimat-like affection for and insightful interpretation of them.
Accompanied with sensitivity and skill by pianist Vlad Iftinca, Hong, despite battling a head cold, took on a daunting program and emerged, as a whole, triumphantly undaunted. Her attire was at once sophisticated and fairy-princess regal, and set off Iftinca’s simple black Nehru-collared suit. It began in soft blue-violet chiffon, puddling at the floor, the bodice sparkling with silver beads, its long, slim matching wrap used to dramatic or humorous effect, her thick auburn hair pulled back bouffant-style, pinned at the nape.
But now: to the music.
The program began with four songs by Franz Schubert. In “Nacht und Träume” (“Night and dreams”) the voice was warm, pure, and clear, soaring heavenward. Here, Hong displayed masterful control of long, soaring phrases, ending in hushed tones. “Ständchen” (“Serenade”) was a bit weak in the German at the start, but got better; the quality of the sound in the phrase “Fürchte, Holde, nicht” was full, melodious, and clear. Here Iftinca was at one with the music and with the singer, watching her attentively, flexibly but intelligently crescendoing and descrescendoing, adjusting his volume to fit hers.
“Die Post” (“The mail”) was joyful and spirited, the character seeming to at once anticipate the arrival of a letter from her beloved, and realize that it’s highly unlikely. Hong ended the song with an amusing, double-take unsureness. With “Die Männer sind méchant” (“All men are rogues”), Hong seized the song’s mood and ran with it, thrusting her arms aggressively and expressively, squeezing her fists, and at last, closing her hands prayerfully in hope.
A quick exit as a break between composers (and moods) was followed by an unplanned comical insert: On the way back onstage, the chiffon scarf having been as “méchant” during the Schubert as the men in that last song by continually slipping off her shoulders, Hong snatched it off in a combination mock prima donna /stern mother style, and deposited it decisively on Iftinca’s bench. The pianist picked up the cue—and the wayward scarf—as surely as he picked up her musical ones, and the concert continued, a jaunty sense of lightness and well-being leaving us feeling quite gemütlich.
A feeling that would be short-lived: the second part of the first half of the recital brought Robert Schumann’s tragic song cycle “Frauenliebe und-leben” (“A Woman’s Love and Life”), to which Hong brought intermittent technical mastery, but interpretive skill that at least once would move audience members to tears.
The first song, “Seit ich ihn gesehen” (“Since I saw him”), was thoughtful; the second, “Er, der Herrlichste von allen” (“He, the noblest of all”) was notable for Hong’s effortless rendering of the mid-range top notes, of the text in a convincing, conversational style, although the pronunciation suffered a bit. “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben” (“I can’t grasp it, nor believe it”) also flowed conversationally and idiomatically, with a lovely, pure, exquisitely rounded top note invoking the woman’s wish to die “in tears of infinite bliss.”
“Du Ring an meinem Finger’s” (“Thou ring on my finger”) forte passages were clear and unforced; “Helft mir, ihr Schwestern” (“Help me, ye sisters”) was enjoyable. “Sußer Freund, du blickest” (“Sweet friend, thou gazest”) was ruminative; at the lines, “Wo sie still verberge / Meinen holden Traum” (“where it [the cradle] silently conceal/my sweet dream”), the pianist fixed his eyes on the soprano; together, they attained a musically exquisite, gentle rapture.
“An meimem Herzen, an meiner Brust” (At my heart, at my breast”) portrays a mother’s loving, joyful contemplation of her suckling infant. Here, the mother’s warmth and contentment, made manifest through the gentle richness of Hong’s expressiveness and tone, was infectious. Here too, alas, one became aware that something else may have been as well, as Hong audibly cleared her throat a few times. (If life were fair, singers would have a natural immunity to head colds).
As it turned out, the next selection, “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan” (“Now thou hast given me, for the first time, pain”) would also draw upon Hong’s physical, and, perhaps even more, emotional reserves. It does not seem farfetched to speculatively suggest that perhaps the overwhelming despondency of the song—“The abandoned one gazes straight ahead, / the world is void, / I have loved and lived, I am no longer living”—combined with the aforementioned congestion, caused the singer’s voice to break, the supple vibrancy momentarily parched, perhaps drawn away to form the tears that filled her eyes. (Which also may have had yet another source: a recent personal loss that has made this song cycle more painful for the singer, and yet, more urgent).
In true trouper fashion, though, as strong, rousing applause filled the hall, she took the wrap, and, laughing, daubed her eyes, placed it to her nose, and used it for a Kleenex—forming a perfect gateway to the concluding song, Franz Schubert’s joyful, tenderly devotional “Widmung” (“Dedication”), which Hong carried off with aplomb.
The second half of the program began, Hong clad in an elegant white gown with rhinestone bodice and white chiffon shawl, with songs by four 20th-century Korean composers. “Yong-Hah Yoon’s Boh Ree Baht” (“The Barley Field”) seemed to open up new registers in the singer’s vocal vocabulary, both musical and emotional, as thrillingly rich chest tones proclaimed a profound love for homeland. Dong-Jin Kim’s “Neh Mah Eum” (“My Heart”) offered another chance for Hong to dazzle her listeners with ringing, melodious top notes, only here, they were strikingly secure, open, and generous, in a way that seemed unique to these songs, or perhaps, to the sentiments they evoked.
With his “Gah Go Pah” (“Yearning to Return”), which Hong portrayed not just vocally but, given the lack of English translation, gesturally, any traces of a cold were cast off as she shared the tale, its Romantic surges rooted as much in 19th-century Italian opera as in traditional Korean folk music, with her audience. Iftinca did yeoman’s work with the extraordinarily demanding arpeggios and accompanying sotto voce rumblings, rendering them sublimely.
In Sung-Tae Kim’s “Dong Shim Cho” (“Hopeless Reunion”), Hong seemed almost to assume another persona, the intense drama of the situation taking her to another level of personification, her top notes shimmering like diamonds. The last, Doo-Hwae Koo’s “Sae Rah Ryung” (“Bird’s Song”), was a tour de force of delightful mimicry, with Hong happily (and of course, musically) cheeping and chirping, her fingers a percussive accompaniment, the tempi shifting from march to waltz to andante gait—all of it ending in what was probably a high C (but could as easily have been a high E-flat).
After that, it was both a relief and something of a comedown to find ourselves back among the lieder. But Hong’s rendition of Richard Strauss’s “Allerseelen” (“All Souls’ Day”) was lovely; his “Morgen!” (“Tomorrow!”), a hushed masterpiece not heard nearly enough, was done full justice by Iftinca’s prayerful introduction, played with an ecstatic quasi-stillness, and nearly so by Hong, who could be forgiven for not quite reaching its ethereal heights, after the difficult, draining, but deeply rewarding program she had just presented.
Vocal Arts DC presents: Hei-Kyung Hong, soprano, in Recital played on February 26, 2014 at The Kennedy Center-2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For future Kennedy Center events, go to their calendar of performances.