Mark Grey's 'Mugunghwa' traces a Korean journey

By the time Namsoo Kim escaped from a North Korean prison at the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, he had been keeping a poetic diary about his harrowing experiences since his early teens. Kim's recently discovered writings, along with personal letters from his sister, serve as the text and structural spine for Mark Grey's innovative choral cantata, "Mugunghwa: Rose of Sharon."

Kim, who died in 2002, hovers over "Mugunghwa" like a ghost. His story stands for all survivors of the Korean War whose lives were turned upside down.

Commissioned by conductor Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale for Korean American violinist Jennifer Koh, the work runs about 40 minutes. It is scheduled to premiere in the second half of a "Stories From Korea" program next Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The concert also features works by several young Korean composers, including a piece for three choirs, "Me-Na-Ri," by Hyowon Woo.

The composer, violinist and conductor were together in Disney Hall in November and sat down to discuss "Mugunghwa."

A longtime sound designer for John Adams and the Kronos Quartet, Grey, 44, was born in Evanston, Ill., and grew up in Palo Alto. His last composition, the 70-minute "Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio," premiered in 2008 deploying a baritone soloist, full orchestra and chorus of 140 voices.

Grey described his new work as "a cross between a requiem, folk ceremony and celebration of one man's spirit to reconnect with family." "Mugunghwa" — the word translates as "immortal flower" and also refers to the Korean national flower — began to percolate after Grey ran into Koh in Baltimore in 2007.

"We wanted to look at displacement and immigration, but we were not sure how to do it," Grey said. "Then Jennifer started talking about her family, and I began to reflect on my Korean American friends. There was a common theme running through all these family histories."

That common theme included loss, the lingering memory of the horrors of war and survivors' feelings of displacement.

"When I met Mark, my mom was quite ill, and she was only speaking Korean in the hospital," Koh said. "I understand the language but don't speak it. It was really difficult because I felt this intense separation in just one generation — from my own mother, and from this idea of cultural heritage, because I had been completely raised in the Western tradition."

Koh, 34, grew up in Glen Ellyn, Ill., a comfortable farmland community outside of Chicago.

"My parents literally walked down the Korean peninsula during the course of the Korean War," she said. "To filter my own experience with them, because they are both war survivors — and there are very typical things that happen with war survivors — I would read Holocaust and second-generation literature to come to an understanding of who I was."

Koh said that as each generation passes, the tragic story of this era is being forgotten. She also underscored the consequences of the North-South division during the 1950s.

"People forget that it's not a situation like East and West Germany, where there were still letters and telephone calls. There was absolutely no communication between North and South Korea. Family members were left behind or separated — no contact, no knowledge of whether they're even alive."

Finding the right text to set to music took some time. "There was nothing for Koreans; very little has been translated," Koh said. "This was the most involved I've ever been, just with the text. Usually, I leave the composer alone, but this was a particularly personal project."

Then Grey stumbled upon a Korean American friend who mentioned that her father kept a diary during the Korean War era. "We went back to see her mother," Grey said, "and they opened up this closet and out came this incredible poetry." The man was Namsoo Kim (whose real name was not used to protect his family).

As Grey read Kim's writings, as translated by Jae Young C. Lee, he said he felt "a sense of 'being there' — the colors, tastes, smells and horrors of war."

Kim's family lost everything during the five-year period after 1945, when the country went from Japanese occupation to a Communist government. Communists in the north took land, possessions and money from Korean citizens, then started citizen relocation programs and labor camps for the noncompliant.

Kim, an engineer, was betrayed to the Communists by a neighbor for helping another friend in 1950. He was imprisoned just before Seoul was taken by the North but escaped several months later. Kim fled south, and, like so many other survivors, eventually made his way to America.

In 1981, after decades of being denied a travel permit by the repressive North Korean regime, Kim finally reunited with his family outside Pyongyang. By that time, his father had died. He found his surviving relatives living in what Grey described as "Third World conditions," and still on rations since the Korean War.

"When I saw pictures of their reunion and started putting those pictures with words and emotion, all of a sudden the piece began to pulse," Grey said.

Yet it's not easy translating poetry, harder still to set it to music. "I'm very sensitive to the kind of texts that sing well," Gershon said. "To make a blanket generality: The fewer words, the better — the more succinct and evocative a text, the more universal."

Gershon noted that the Korean American community in Los Angeles is especially active in choral music and singing. "It's such a strong part of the Korean identity," he said.

The poetry selected by Koh and Grey "sings beautifully off the page, both in Korean and in translation," Gershon added.

At one point, Kim evokes the tragedy of war in his homeland. The full chorus sings, in English: "Even stars / hid beneath this ocean of inferno, / weary, famished body, / on this old road / the gods of Ghost Mountain / bequeath these woes, / 1950, December 4th, / with a breath of youth, / glimmer of life, / chased by a pack of wolves."

Kim's sister's letters, interspersed with his poetry, are first heard in Korean, sung by a solo soprano. Grey uses her words as an emotional link to Kim's absent family. The sister still lives in North Korea. (Kim's widow and daughter are expected to attend the premiere.)

Singing such an intensely expressive piece in Korean and English will no doubt challenge Gershon's choir. "The settings of the texts are extremely specific," he said. "They run the gamut from desolation and very intimate expression to a sense of giddy exhilaration and euphoria — almost like a manic quality."

By contrast, Grey's writing for the violin loosely represents a shamanic role, acting as a medium between the visible and spiritual world. He exploits the instrument's singing quality and melodic power, with Koh's violin heard in solos but mostly playing in tandem with the Master Chorale.

"Jennifer's violin is an extended voice of the chorus," Grey said, "dancing, enticing, teasing, scolding, bribing and loving — how a mudang, or tribal shaman, performs during a traditional ceremony."

For Koh, the beauty of "Mugunghwa" is in its attempt to create bridges between people, and between past and present. "One can't live in the present, or even look forward, without also looking back," she said. "For me, art has always served as the shaman for the future."

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