Monday, February 6, 2012

Guest blog by Conductor Jonathan Palant: Visiting South Korea

Today we have another amazing guest blog- wow, I better brush up on my writing skills, my guest bloggers are putting me to shame!

In the Fall of 2009 I was honored to be invited to attend the premiere of my Missa Brevis Incheon, commissioned by Hak-won Yon and his incredible professional choir, the Incheon City Chorale. My trip to Seoul, paid for fully by Hak-Won and the choir, was amazing--click here to read some of multiple blogs I wrote about the trip. The next fall I noticed that Accolades Tours was offering amazingly inexpensive trips to South Korea for US choral conductors so that they would consider South Korea as a choir tour destination. My Nawlins friend Caroline Carson went in January 2011 and had a great time. This past fall the very talented young conductor Jonathan Palant started asking Caroline and me about this South Korea trip opportunity, and we both encouraged him to go this January. Jonathan did go, and here, after his pic and short bio, is his very beautiful blog about his experiences in South Korea:

Dr. Jonathan Palant is currently Minister of Music at Kessler Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. From 2007-2011, he served as Artistic Director of Dallas’ Turtle Creek Chorale. Prior to that time, Palant was Adjunct Professor of Choral Music at Madonna University in Livonia, Michigan. He taught secondary choral music at both University School in Cleveland, Ohio and San Pasqual High School in Escondido, California.

Palant currently sits on the Intercollegiate Men’s Choruses Board of Directors. Previously, he was on the board of both the Michigan School Vocal Association and Youth First Texas, where he founded Dallas PUMP!, a choir serving at-risk youth. Palant holds degrees from Michigan State University, Temple University and the University of Michigan.

JP: Hiking the Great Wall of China, viewing a sunset over Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor and sailing the Mekong River are all things I’ve wanted to do before I die—my bucket list, as it were. A week in South Korea never made the list until…

It was mid-October when Paul Carey posted a link on his Facebook page with information on a “Discovery Tour to South Korea for Choral Conductors” sponsored by Accolades Tours. What do I know about South Korea? Well, the South is not the communist part of the Korean peninsula. American veterans talk about the Korean War, but I’m not exactly sure when it happened or why. I know Hyundai and Kia are both Korean cars and I remember a Korean grade school classmate of mine who would flip her pencil over her thumb over and over and over again. I consider myself a fairly worldly person, but clearly what I know about South Korea is limited at best.

Musically, my one and only encounter with Korean choral music was a performance by the Incheon City Chorale at the 2009 ACDA National Convention in Oklahoma City. I definitely remember that performance, as anyone that heard it would attest, because it was beyond spectacular on every level.

So there you have it. That’s what I know about Korea.

Friday morning, January 6th and I’m on a plane to Chicago to meet up with the 10 other Korean-bound travelers that make up our tour group. 2.5 hours from Dallas to Chicago and 14 hours from Chicago to Seoul. Thankfully, I’ve secured exit row seating the entire way. My first impression of Asiana Airlines came in the form of the flight attendants. They were clones of each other! As the group walked by to board the airplane, it was hard not to notice that with just one exception—the man—each woman was precisely the same height, weight and sporting the same hairstyle. Was this a Korean fashion trend or just this expectation?

Day 2. Following a wonderful journey to Cherweon to view the DMZ and tour the second of four known tunnels dug to shuttle arms between North and South Korea, we had our first musical experience of the trip.

Myeong Sung Presbyterian Church is in Seoul, the largest city and capital of South Korea. Of the 22 million that inhabit the country, 12 live in Seoul. Frankly, it still doesn’t fully explain how Myeong Sung has a membership nearing 100,000! We arrived about 30 minutes before the last service of the day was to start. This service would be the contemporary one and feature the youth choir and praise band. No big deal—I can handle a little contemporary music.

It’s time for the service. About 50 teenagers took their place on the tiered chancel. The 8-piece band, including several keyboards, guitars and drums began to play. The massive speakers—those I’ve seen hanging above Madison Square Garden for a Madonna concert—start to vibrate. I’m already in awe of this spectacle. Introduce some subtle choreography. I can’t help but notice many of the singers have their eyes closed tightly and one hand open, as if accepting the grace they are receiving from the music.

Three or four powerful songs later, I notice the orchestra and youth choir have now “entered.” Why the quotes? Because there are SEVEN HUNDRED IN THE YOUTH CHOIR!!!! The orchestra was a more typical size…perhaps 40-50 players. As was the thought for many in our group, all I wanted to know was what kind of closet they had for those choir robes? Did each of the 5 choirs have that many people in them? I soon found out the answer was YES! How often did they rehearse and what room? One hour per week in the sanctuary. The music they offered wasn’t classical, difficult, profoundly interesting and it certainly wasn’t refined, but it entered my soul in a very deep and intense way. The smiles, the heart, the passion, the tears in some eyes, the clasped hands, the melodies…

I was overcome by that experience. God was present in that room that afternoon. God was on their faces and in their song. And this from someone (me) who still isn’t sure he believes in God.

Our next musical experience came the following day at the Korean International Choral Workshop. I was honored to be one of three clinicians. Attendees were school, professional and church conductors. The demonstration choir was from the city of Gwangmyong. (Korean cities with a population greater than 100,000 all have government sponsored, professional, full-time choirs!!) Although the men overpowered the women, the sound in general was quite good. The group of 16 was responsive, focused and came well-prepared. The only oddity occurred when we began to work Bach’s Dona Nobis Pacem. The choir had no concept of appropriate performance practice, no notion of nuance and no idea how to perform a fugue other than to sing the notes and rhythms as they were printed on the page. It surprised both my American counterparts and me, the clinician! Nearly 2-hours into the session and such an intense “work out” wasn’t in the cards. I turned around to those in the gallery and said, “What an appropriate piece to unite our worlds. Let’s all sing it together as one choir!”

While we live 7,000 miles apart, the music of Bach (albeit sans nuance) brought us so close. It was an honor to stand in front of this choir, but it was an even bigger honor to be among friends from a different land. I’ll never forget that experience.

While there were many wonderful experiences over the course of this weeklong journey, visiting the Incheon City Chorale and the World Vision Youth Choir Korea were especially meaningful. As it was for every formal visitation, when we arrived at the Incheon Arts Center, we were first escorted into a private “board room” of sorts. The chorus manager, donning a pinned-striped suit, Waldo glasses and a Charlie Chaplin bowler hat, introduced us to the staff and served us all warm corn tea. It was first time having corn tea, and while interesting, I’m not sure I’d shuck for seconds. Corn tea tastes like the hot water in which one has just boiled corn. It’s a little starchy, a little bland and a lot corny.

After tea, we were ushered into the rehearsal hall where Maestro Hak-Won Yoon and the Incheon City Chorale was awaiting our arrival. Printed programs were handed out, as were copies of the music they’d sing. It was great to be given copies of this music for our own libraries.

The music was complex, intense at times, humorous at times and all performed with what I was beginning to hear as the “Korean choral sound.” It’s a massive sound that resembles something close to our idea of opera chorus timbre (especially the men), yet individual voices do not stick out and that “I’m going to out-sing my neighbor” attitude is nowhere to be heard. Big voices making intimate music—unique and thrilling.

(Jonathan Palant and South Korean conductor Hak-Won Yoon)

To close their program, the Incheon City Chorale offered us Americans a little taste of home…sung in Korean. 7,000 miles away from home and yet SO close.

Before we departed Incheon, we had a few minutes to chat with the singers and ask Dr. Yoon any questions we might have. One of my tour cohorts must have struck up some interesting conversation because he shuffled over one of the Koreans and began with, “Jonathan, you’re Jewish, right?” Then out of nowhere, “Andy” my new best friend and member of the Incheon City Chorale bass section began singing Shalom Chaverim! Naturally, I join him in belting away this traditional Hebrew song. Two verses of that and he switches us both to Maoz Tzur, then Shalom Aleichem, Hava Nagila, David Melech Yisrael

7,000 miles away from home and yet SO close. Turns out Andy’s a comparative religion major with a special interest in Jewish studies. Email addresses exchanged and off our group went.

I didn’t know of The World Vision Choir Korea until this trip. Their website states:

In 1960, World Vision Korea recruited choir members among World Vision’s sponsored children, who lost their parents during Korean War. The children sang in return for their sponsors’ love and help for them, which moved many people’s minds to become sponsors for children. The choir started its first year touring 27 countries and gradually grew up to become one of the world’s best children’s choir as it awarded the First Prize in the World Choral Competition hosted by BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation. With its 5,000 accumulated performance experience in 700 cities of 50 countries, it contributes to enhancing national prestige and promoting friendship in the global community.

Sometimes seeing it for yourself is more effective than any description one can offer.

The children closed their performance with an original setting of the Gaelic Blessing—and there wasn’t a dry eye among us.

I want to share one more experience of a non-musical nature.

On the day of our conducting workshop, we were taken to lunch by several of the area conductors. I chose, being the shy guy I am (NOT!) to sit not with my American colleagues, but rather at the table with all the locals. I sat across from “Duke.” Most Koreans, as is the case throughout Asia, have an English name as well as their given name. Duke’s English is quite good. Here’s the synopsis of our conversation and you’ll see why it became so meaningful—

Me: Duke, are you originally from South Korea?

Duke: No. I was born in North Korea. While I was studying in the south, the borders were closed. My family, 7 siblings and both my parents, were killed in the war. I joined the South Korean Navy and my job was to sing for the troupes. I then went to school for music in the USA.

Me: That’s an incredible story. I’m so sorry to hear about your family. Where did you study in the States?

Duke: I went to New England Conservatory to study with Lorna Cooke deVaron

Me: I went to graduate school with Alexander deVaron, Lorna’s son. I grew up in Lexington not far from NEC.

Duke: My daughter lives in Lexington now! She married a Jewish man who is a professor at MIT.

Me: I’m Jewish. I wonder if my parents, who still live in Lexington, would know your daughter? Does she have children?

Fast forward…I call home and ask my parents if either of them might know this family. As it turns out, Duke’s grandchildren are patients in my dad’s medical practice!

7,000 miles away from home and yet SO close.

This Discovery Tour proved to be just that—a real discovery. I feel fortunate to have had the resources, time and just enough courage to undertake such an adventure. I truly didn’t know what to expect or what I’d ultimately gain from this journey, but now, as I reflect, I feel as if a void has been filled. Surprisingly, I didn’t know a void existed, but my experiences there enriched my life in such a way that I now believe I wasn’t complete until having them. Allow me a bit of latitude with this metaphor, but it’s like eating Brussels Sprouts—you don’t know what you think until you try them! I’m really glad I went to South Korea.


I love Brussels sprouts. I always have and I always will.

I rarely try new food. I didn’t on this trip, and I won’t in the future.

--Jonathan Palant

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