Monterey Symphony: A Whale of a Concert!

Conductor Jung-Ho Pak

This was an extraordinary event and unlike any other concert I have ever attended! Monterey Symphony guest conductor Jung-Ho Pak had selected four innovative works for this program, the fourth in a series themed with the title “Sound Waves.” Not unexpectedly, two of the four compositions we heard last night at Sunset Center immersed us in the sound and images of sea in a major way with a video by Feo Pitcairn to accompany the Hovhaness work and a video by Annie Crawley to accompany Stella Sung’s Oceana (2018). The videography was projected on a screen above the Monterey Symphony players. Both Pitcairn and Crawley were in the audience and were introduced.

To add to our understanding of the marine ecology of Monterey Bay and the recorded images we were about to observe, Pak brought to the stage John Ryan, Senior Research Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Research Institute at Moss Landing. Ryan discussed the rich variety of marine species in Monterey Bay, but also described the environmental threat of noise pollution caused by shipping and the fishing industry upon marine wildlife. I was surprised to learn that whales can communicate and be heard up to distances of 1700 kilometers and even more surprised to learn how much commercial and military shipping routinely create underwater sounds that upset, block and distort these communications. Crawley’s videography also vividly displayed the non-biodegradable, jettisoned trash that litters the world’s oceans and beaches.

After a remarkable and enchanting performance of And God Created Great Whales by Alan Hovhaness, we heard the the West Coast premiere of Stella Sung’s, Oceana, a work chosen so recently that it wasn’t even mentioned in the printed program. In Sung’s score, innovative orchestral sounds blend with pre-recorded whale songs and project the hope that humans and marine wildlife can coexist peacefully for many generations to come.

Percussionist Christopher S. Lamb

Certainly the most innovative work on the program was Water Concerto by Tan Dun, who was not present at this west coast premiere. Tan Dun is known for his interesting works, and he won a grammy for the film score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Water Concerto was composed for and dedicated to Christopher S. Lamb, who has been performing this work around the world with the New York Philharmonic. Lamb is Principal Percussionist with the New York Philharmonic and made a special trip for this event. He turned out to be a most remarkable performer.

During this work three large see-through water bowls were on stage in full view and were manipulated by Lamb and two members of the Monterey Symphony percussion team. They created an extraordinary variety of innovative sounds that went way beyond the familiar splashing, sprinkling, dripping sounds to which we are already accustomed. We heard small gongs dipped in water to change their pitch and timbre, wood platters dipped in water and tapped with a variety of mallets and many other surprising effects that have to be seen and heard to be truly appreciated.

After intermission the evening’s program concluded with an exciting performance of Symphony No. 9 by Dimitri Shostakovich. Speaking from the stage, Pak told us that we were going to be amused, entertained and moved by this great symphony, and, indeed, we were all of that. During the Shostakovich performance, I kept wondering, “What in the world does this symphony have to do with the ocean?” Backstage I asked Mr. Pak this same question. His answer, with a hearty laugh, “Well, I wanted to select a palate cleanser, and besides, it’s a great work that needs to be heard more often.”

About Mr. Pak, he is already, at a fairly young age, a very skilled and charismatic conductor. How do we evaluate a conductor? First of all by the music he selects to present to an audience, and he earned high marks for this. Next, by how effectively his vision of the music is realized by the orchestra, and he earned high marks here as well, for, in my opinion, the orchestra never sounded better. Lastly we get to the charisma factor. Pak is a charming and effective communicator at ease with himself and able to talk to an audience and enhance the listening experience.

And, finally, and most important of all, during the final applause at the end of the concert we witnessed the warm respect and admiration from the Monterey Symphony players themselves. Their enthusiasm was genuine and unqualified. Too many of the world’s great conductors have been stern, demanding autocrats whose authority was not to be challenged — and you were supposed to cringe with subservience in their presence.

Welcome, Jung-Ho Pak! May you be with us for a long time!

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