Saturday night’s celebration of traditional Korean music and dance staged by Sue Yeon Park of the Korean Performing Arts Center at Symphony Space featured sounds that were as cutting-edge as they were rustic. Korean pansori singing, and much of Korean singing in general, employs microtones and trills and downwardly bent notes that would baffle an awful lot of western musicians. In her gritty, expressive contralto, like something of a Korean mountain-music counterpart to Tina Turner, iconic pansori chanteuse Shin Young-Hee made it look easy throughout a rather macabre-tinged excerpt from the 19th century love epic Chunhyung-ga. Famous Korean percussionist Lee Kwang-Soo – a gregarious and engaging guy with an edgy sense of humor – led a drum troupe through a thunderously hypnotic, subtly polyrhythmic benediction of sorts. Virtuoso Gee-Sook Baek teamed up with drummer Soung-Jae Cho, who spurred her on through a rivetingly spacious, suspenseful performance on the gayageum, a twelve-string lute that throws off otherworldly tremoloing tones and seems like it could be a predecessor of the sitar. Meanwhile, the night’s emcee, a musicologist from Seoul, reminded the crowd that all this music dated from an era when there was no distinction between performer and audience: participation is pretty much mandatory. All this did nothing to discourage the commonly held notion that Koreans are the 24-hour party people of Asia.
There was plenty of drumming, notably a skull-pounding interlude to open the second half of the concert by the Rutgers Korean Cultural Group, to rival the kind of explosively shamanistic Brazilian sounds produced by BatalaNYC. There was also dancing, lots of it. Park herself took a solo, a graceful number that saw her practically disappear into the stage, facedown, at the end, the folds of her silken costume edging closer and closer downward. It’s one thing to do the splits, Chuck Berry style – it’s another to hold that position in place. Park was doing that twenty years ago and clearly hasn’t lost any athleticism in the ensuing two decades, no small achievement.
A bevy of women swayed and gently exchanged places throughout a stately fan dance, serenaded by the band offstage. Several of the drummers wore ribbons on a swivel affixed to the rear of their uniform helmets, which they spun by moving their heads quickly, side to side – how they managed to keep their footing, keep the ribbons swirling, and keep time, without losing their balance or running headfirst into the the back wall of the stage, was impressive, to say the least. One of them finally made a circle of the stage, spinning faster and faster, leaning in toward the center in a more explosive take on what Turkish dervishes will do at the peak of a musical number. The night’s final performances brought a full musical ensemble together with the dance/drumming contingent (there was a lot of overlap among them, the night’s organizer included); tersely intense geomungo (six-string zither) player Mi Jin Park being a standout among them.
The Korean Peforming Arts Center and their house ensemble, Sounds of Korea, stage frequent outdoor concerts during the warmer months, from Lincoln Center to Little Korea just south of 34th Street and points further south as well; bookmark their webpage if sounds as sophisticated yet ancient as these are your thing.