At Freer, Hi Kyung Kim reveals mastery of Asian and Western genre-blending


Borromeo String Quartet. (Eli Akerstein)
April 8, 2013

Composers have been smashing the boundaries between traditional Asian and contemporary Western music for years now, blending those apparently opposite worlds and producing a wealth of fascinating new music. The Korean-born composer Hi Kyung Kim is a master of the genre, and at the Freer Gallery on Sunday afternoon — joined by the Borromeo String Quartet and an unusual ensemble that uses both Korean and Western instruments — she showcased two new works that pushed both East and West into provocative new realms.

The premiere of Kim’s string quartet “Han San” opened the program. Inspired by an aerial photograph of a seaweed farm, it’s a richly colored work that leaps and tumbles along with irrepressible vitality, flavored with bent notes, frenetic tremolos and slithering glissandi, all to wonderfully expressive effect. A complex rhythmic structure — built, Kim noted, “around the breath rather than a beat” — underpinned the four-section work and gave it a sense of natural spontaneity, as if it were unfolding like some natural phenomenon. A masterful work, and the Borromeo players (reading their scores off MacBooks) navigated its complexities with easy virtuosity.

When the gifted composer Andrew Imbrie died in 2007, he left behind a detailed sketch for a clarinet quintet. Kim — a former student of Imbrie’s — decided to complete the work, and while it’s just a fragment of a single movement, it proved to have the sophisticated, approachable charm of much of Imbrie’s music. In the hands of clarinet superstar Richard Stoltzman (who joined the Borromeo for this performance), the work took on a kind of affectionate glow, full of songlike passages and delicately calibrated interplay between clarinet and strings.

But it was Kim’s “Thousand Gates” that really stole the show. Part of a planned multimedia epic, the 45-minute piece (whose title refers to the gates of heaven) mixed an anything-goes range of styles, instruments and cultural references into a joyful meditation on death and eternal life. Theatrical and often quite moving, it was also wildly uninhibited: A mournful soliloquy on a wooden Korean flute turned into a playful rendering of “You Are My Sunshine,” a Renaissance dance blossomed out of nowhere, a duet on a wood block became a titanic battle of sound. The whole thing built to an ecstatic climax that brought the audience to its feet. Spirited playing from the Ensemble Rituel (and the dancing percussionist Eun-Ha Park, in particular) made for a memorable afternoon.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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