By Aliya Bashir
The flooded sound of harmonized notes twisting into tune overrode a murmuring audience in the Performing Arts Center Recital Hall as they fell into silent captivation. Commotion ceased. Lights dimmed. An instrumental odyssey began.
As conductor, Mina Kim, and pianist, Sehyeon Ju, entered the stage, the accompanied rumble of the orchestra members stomping their feet and audience applause filled the hall. Kim, who has served as orchestra director for the Purchase Music Conservatory and has performed with a myriad of prestigious ensembles around the world, took to the conductor’s podium as Ju, a graduate student at Purchase with a remarkable resume of accomplishments himself, approached the piano bench with humble deference and opened the program with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s infamous “Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor.”
The Russian composer was hailed as one of the greatest pianists of the late 19th and early 20th century. After receiving poor criticism for his first symphony in 1897, Rachmaninoff entered a grueling dark period from which Concerto No. 2 derives. Notorious for its broken rhythms and haunting symphonic accompaniment, Ju encapsulates the sorrowful air of Rachmaninoff’s mental state immediately as he produced a gentle chord that increasingly crescendoed into the symphony’s full-blown declaration of arrival.
The swelling notes and cries overwhelmed the senses with feelings of confusion and uncertainty that one grandparent in the audience described as “[an] unbelievably amazing” serenade reminiscent to what many musicians at Purchase experienced playing without an audience amidst the covid pandemic. “It’s a little nervous, a little exciting,” said Ju after a rehearsal, “…but I’m just so happy to play for people again.”
As the winner of the Purchase Concerto Competition, Ju was awarded the decision to choose which piece he would play with the PSO. “Rachmaninoff has always been on my bucket list,” Ju explained. “[Because of COVID], I missed a lot on my bucket list that I didn’t get to play. This piece is very difficult and usually people prepare for this piece over one year. I usually play as a soloist, so playing with [an] orchestra was something I couldn’t do; and I was really nervous [for this performance] because it’s with a new group of people I haven’t played [with] before."
With the final notes of the concerto still ringing in the hall, the audience adorned Ju with a long-standing ovation before a brief intermission. “Did you see how fast his hands were moving? Can hands even move that fast?” said one audience member to their friends. As players moved about the stage to change seating arrangements, an eager and buzzing crowd awaited the next act. Parents awkwardly shuffled past seated onlookers with flowers wrapped in glossy cellophane, while younger siblings of the performers anxiously fussed in their seats in anticipation. College kids were sprawled across the back rows chatting amongst themselves. And all in one instant, the dimming house lights reduce the noise to undivided attention as Kim returns for Johannes Brahms’ “Symphony No.1 in C Minor."
Unlike Rachmaninoff’s piece, the Brahms’ symphony bears a conversational element as the upper and lower sections echo each other with passion and reverence above the steady heartbeat of the timpani. From its conception to its finality, this symphony took roughly 21 years for Brahms to perfect and his trademark romantic style shines through in the blend of punchy notes from the horns to the slower and whimsical melodies reminiscent of German folk songs.
As if under a trance, the players extended their music to their bodies and began to sway along to the dance of their own making, enticing the audience members who follow along. For a moment, all the chaos of the outside world disappeared and all that remains is this tender interaction between the orchestra and the audience.
“I chose this piece very intentionally. A lot of student musicians suffered [during] Covid because we didn’t really have a chance to meet and play for an audience,” Kim said. “I think, as a conductor, I’m a messenger, you know? The composer wrote something, and you have to bring it to life. There should be that communication between the player and the audience, but we totally lost that. So, I’m really excited for this season and [to] bring that back."
Looking ahead, Kim plans to bring the theme of inclusivity to upcoming performances with the PSO. “It’s always great to prepare a new concert together because we have new freshmen and grad students that come together” she said. “As an educator, I really want to support my students and share [with the audience] the beauty of a classical repertoire."
In their next concert on Nov. 18, the PSO welcomes percussion soloist and faculty member Christian Graham to play Julia Wolfe’s “riSE and fLY," along with Edward Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” which both invite the audience into an immersive space to stir the mind, body, and soul.