PYEONGCHANG, Gangwon Province ― The last time cellist Koh Bong-ihn was at the Great Mountains International Music Festival & School (GMMFS), the famed Juilliard professor Aldo Parisot said the young man should become reputed as an interpreter of works by Korean composers.
Seven years down the road the 26-year-old seems to be realizing the elder cellist’s advice. He has since then played Isang Yun’s cello concerto in both North and South Korea and has experimented with cross-continental sounds as part of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. On Friday, Koh introduced the local audience to a riveting piece by Korean composer Younghi Pagh-Paan, who is reputed as “the next Isang Yun” in Europe.
“When Professor Parisot told me I should specialize in works by Korean composers I was not completely thrilled, because I thought that meant limiting my artistic scope and repertoire. But now I am extremely grateful and I hope to set an example,” said Koh. “I wish more Koreans can step up to set an example. That is why I want to perform more works by Korean composers, particularly in Korea, because I wish Koreans can realize the value of Korean artwork.”
The musician looked considerably thin compared to two years ago, when The Korea Times met him in Seoul. Back then he had given an inspired rendition of the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Jeonju Symphony Orchestra; likewise during the festival he brought a certain weight and girth to Haydn’s String Quartet No. 2. But as much as his interpretation of Yun’s cello piece earned him a top award at the Gyeongnam International Music Competition, Koh shined most performing Pagh-Paan’s “Man-Nam I.”
The violin and viola wept with a haunting sense of “han,” or pervasive sadness, and the cello spun out pizzicati to evoke the rhythmic interplay of two “janggu” drums. Though Koh played with an intense, red-blooded urgency, he made sure to burn off sentimentality to allow the music to speak on its own.
“‘Man-Nam’ has been performed over 90 times in Europe but this was the best rendition I’ve ever heard,” said Pagh, who is discussing prospects of Koh playing her other works for the cello.
“It was an honor to play Ms. Pagh’s piece. She wrote it as she longed for her mother while studying in Germany, and having also studied abroad I can really sympathize with that. The piece features very Korean vibratos, and the cello solo cadenza is very sentimental as it calls out ‘mother,’” said Koh.
“I think Koreans have really special ties with their roots. I remember when I was 10 and getting lessons from Professor Chung. She was so cosmopolitan and chic and seemed like a foreigner to me. But one day, she invited me to have dinner and she made kimchi stew instead of pasta. I thought, ‘wow she really is Korean!’” Chung remains to be a mother figure to him, he said.
He said he was thrilled to be back onstage and moreover, to reunite with his teacher. He used to receive lessons as a boy from the esteemed cellist and professor Chung Myung-wha, who is co-directing the festival with her violinist sister Kyung-wha.
“Professor Chung is always so concerned about me, and was worried whether I would have time to practice while studying. It felt like meeting family again and I’m so happy to see her as a musician (rather than a student).”
A native of Jeonju, a city known for its traditional housing and cuisine, Koh grew up in the United States from age five to nine. When he returned to North Jeolla Province, he said he experienced a most positive counter-culture shock.
“Everything was so interesting; from the way my Korean classmates played games to the food I got to eat. I was also able to appreciate Korean culture in a more profound way, and when I went to Germany for high school I would always bring back gifts made with ‘hanji’ (Korean traditional paper that Jeonju is particularly famous for),” he said.
“It’s amazing that PyeongChang will be hosting the Winter Olympics and that we have star athletes like (figure skater) Kim Yu-na. I hope the same can be said about Korean music,” he said, explaining that he was impressed by how the Kim Duk-soo “samulnori” (percussion quartet) recently performed at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Despite being a promising soloist, Koh has barely been seen onstage as of late. He made a rare appearance at the festival because he was able to get a couple weeks off from doing research on molecular biology.
The cellist, who graduated with a double degree at Harvard and the New England Conservatory, is currently in his second year of pursuing a Ph. D. at Princeton. During the festival, when he wasn’t playing onstage, he was often spotted typing away furiously on his laptop near the press center. It was for the wireless Internet connection so he could email his work to the U.S. school.
“When I’m doing research, I can’t wait to wake up to work on it more the next day. The same anticipation grips me when it comes to playing music,” Koh said. What’s more, lab work and making music help balance things out. “When I’m exhausted from researching all day I pick up my cello and play away the stress. It’s a constructive way to relieve stress.”
He hopes there will be more exposure for not only traditional Korean music but also contemporary classical pieces that explore quintessentially Korean sounds such as Pagh’s oeuvre. In the meantime, while wrapping up his five-year Ph. D program, he plans on pursuing a career as a chamber musician.