One World Symphony conductor and artistic director Sung Jin Hong
(Photo Courtesy Sung Jin Hong)
October 24, 2014

Former Central Illinoisan Now Making Classical Music In NYC

Sung Jin Hong's musical journey includes stops in Peoria and New York City.

Sung Jin HongAs a teen-ager In the 1990s, Hong, then known as David Hong, organized his own youth orchestra, the Peoria Youth Sinfonietta. The organization lasted for several years, as Hong moved from high school to music studies at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. One of Hong’s role models was the late Leonard Bernstein, the conductor and composer who spent many years in New York City and wasn’t shy about seeking a mass audience.

A decade and a half later, Sung Jin Hong is himself composing and conducting in New York City, and making music that seeks a mass audience.

One example is “Breaking Bad – Ozymandias, a short music drama which Hong composed in tribute to the TV series “Breaking Bad”. The 50 minute work had its premiere in New York City last January, at a concert of One World Symphony, for which Hong is conductor and artistic director.

Hong says he first learned about the show last year from his sister, and was quickly hooked.

“I realized what people were talking about when they’re saying ‘binge-watching’”, said Hong. “When I was watching the TV show, I didn’t deliberately think to myself, oh I’m going to create an opera. But after the series finale in September, I was so moved and touched, I thought, this would make an amazing dramatic work.”

“Breaking Bad – Ozymandias” has its lighter moments, such as a section Hong calls the “bitch aria”, using audience participation to highlight one of the favorite words of the TV show’s Jesse Pinkman character. And like the TV show, “Breaking Bad – Ozymandias” has very dark passages. One section draws from an episode of the TV series entitled “Fly”, in which an anguished Walter White remembers a peaceful moment with his family, and tells Jesse Pinkman that he wishes his life had ended right there. In words condensed from the TV episode, the singer baritone Jose Pietri-Coimbre at the premiere) sings:

Ah! That was the moment... that night.
I should have never left home. 
Maybe things would have…
I was at home watching TV. 
Skyler and Holly were in another room. 
She was singing a lullaby.
Ah — if I had just lived right up to 
that moment and not one second more,
that would have been perfect!

Hong says using a TV show as subject matter for classical music is keeping with past composers who drew on the theater for their work. He compares “Breaking Bad”’s impact to the impact two centuries ago of Johann Goethe’s play “Faust”, which inspired music by Schubert, Gounod, Berlioz and Wagner.

“Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” is like ‘Faust’ in a way, where (there’s) such a mass, widespread, not even acclaim, but just influence. You hear people talking about it even still, after more than a year of its season finale.

Sung Jin Hong is now preparing another operatic work drawn from pop culture. “Hannibal” is drawn from Thomas Harris’ novels about serial killer Hannibal Lector, and the spinoff “Hannibal” TV series. Like “Breaking Bad – Ozymandias”, the work will be premiered by One World Symphony.

Sung Jin Hong helped found One World Symphony while he was a graduate student at Bard College in New York City nearly 15 years ago. He says he was helped by his past experience leading the Peoria Youth Sinfonietta.

“That was a very important learning experience with the youth orchestra in Peoria, where it was very collaborative”, said Hong. “We were all teen-agers, young and very idealistic. And that’s how actually One World Symphony started as well. We were all in our mid-20s, didn’t know any better.”

One World Symphony has survived any early naivety and launches its 14th season with a pair of concerts on Sunday and Monday, October 26th and 27th. Their performance space is Manhattan’s Holy Apostles Episcopal Church, where the orchestra’s season includes an annual charity concert for the church’s soup kitchen.

The new season is dubbed “Operasodes”, with programs drawing heavily from opera, and themed around TV shows --- the sitcom “New Girl” is the basis this weekend for opera highlights featuring distinctive female characters.  Hong says an upcoming concert will use “Game of Thrones” as its theme. The premiere of “Hannibal” is set for next May.


July 24, 2014

Urbana Resident Ian Gindes--Professional Concert Pianist/Captain in the Illinois National Guard

This week, Urbana resident Ian Gindes is in New York to perform as part of the Alexander and Buono Festival of Music. He is a professional concert pianist. He is also a Captain in the Illinois National Guard.

Illinois Public Media's Jason Croft talked with Gindes by phone from New York. Gindes was there taking master piano classes at Steinway Hall as part of this festival. He performs Friday, July 25th, at Steinway Hall.


Violinist Amandine Beyer holds Mozart's own violin backstage at Boston's Jordan Hall on Monday.
(Kathy Wittman/Courtesy of the Boston Early Music Festival)
June 14, 2013

Playing Mozart — On Mozart's Violin

The violin and viola that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played himself are in the United States for the first time ever. The instruments come out of storage only about once a year at the Salzburg Mozarteum in Austria. The rest of the time, they're kept under serious lockup. I talked to the musicians who got to play them at the Boston Early Music Festival earlier this week before the violin's New York premiere at the Austrian Cultural Forum New York tonight.

I could feel my heart stop. My fingers were trembling. And I'm pretty sure I had a huge smile on my face as I tucked the violin under my chin. The instrument that Mozart used to perform his own concerts! And professional musicians got the same thrill at the Boston Early Music Festival.

For safety's sake, the violin and viola were flown here on separate airplanes. But the six-person team from the Salzburg Mozarteum who are safeguarding them don't make for a very flashy entourage. There are no huge, beefy guys in shades with crossed arms. No SUVs with blacked-out windows. Instead, there's just a small huddle of frankly not very intimidating-looking Middle Europeans.

"Our main thing is to travel so unspectacular as possible, that nobody should know what is inside the cases," says Gabriele Ramsauer, the director of the Mozart Museums. She and the rest of the team refer to the violin and the viola simply as "The Luggage," and the instruments are being held in an undisclosed location during the tour.

They were made in the early 17th 18th century as workhorse fiddles — sturdy and plain, and meant as tools. They're not as splendid or highly ornamented as the instruments you would find at a royal court during this time, or the instrument a full-time virtuoso would use. But they still are the vessels of Mozart's legacy.

The violin, made in Bavaria by a member of the Klotz family, was the one he most likely used to perform his own violin concertos on tour in Mannheim, Germany; and Paris. The viola is an Italian instrument of about the same period, but its maker is unknown. They're quieter than modern instruments and produce less brilliantly colored tones. They force the audience to lean in to appreciate them.

Backstage after the Boston concert, Miloš Valent said it was hard to describe the feeling he had playing the viola Mozart used in Vienna to jam with friends like Franz Joseph Haydn. "For a musician," Valent says, "who is living with music his whole life and Mozart is someone who is somebody who is really, really important in life, to touch his instrument is something extremely personal."

For her part, violinist Amandine Beyer says she couldn't help but wonder if she was channeling some special spirit when using Mozart's fiddle in Boston. "I had all the time this question! But I tried to call this spirit, no? And to say, 'Are you there?'" Beyer says, laughing. "But I think you can do it with every instrument when you play the music of Mozart."

That's exactly the kind of reaction the Mozarteum is hoping for, says its head of research, Ulrich Leisinger. "We listen to the concert and if we close the eyes, we perhaps even think of Mozart playing the violin," he says. "There are typically two methods to deal with historic instruments. One would be to say that we lock it in a shrine and never let anybody touch it again. But we are entirely convinced that you need to play the instruments because these are the messengers of Mozart's music."

And when the musicians in Boston finished playing, not only did they take their bows — but they also thrust the violin and viola forward for their own well-deserved round of applause.

With special thanks to our friends at Classical New England for providing the recordings of the Jordan Hall concert heard in this piece. Next week, we'll have a complete concert video featuring more performances on Mozart's violin and viola, recently recorded live at WGBH's Fraser Performance Studio.


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