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L.A. Master Chorale's Korean cantata/song cycle/concerto

February 26, 2011 |  8:30 am

Jenif The novelist V.S. Naipaul once observed that “great subjects are illuminated best by small dramas.” A feature story in Arts & Books about the premiere of Mark Grey’s “Mugunghwa: Rose of Sharon” –- part of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s “Stories From Korea” program at Walt Disney Concert Hall on March 6 -- tells of one man’s ordeal during the Korean War, which he described in his diary as being “chased by a pack of wolves,” and his decades-long journey to reconnect with his North Korean family.

The story -– told by Grey in an innovative theatrical-ritualistic blending of choral cantata, song cycle and violin concerto -- doubtless will resonate for many Korean Americans. The work, written for violinist Jennifer Koh, hit close to home. “My parents literally walked down the Korean peninsula during the course of the Korean War,” she said. “But it’s also a universal piece about connecting to what happens in war, and building bridges between past and present, North and South.”

The word “Mugunghwa” (“immortal flower”), according to Grey, has “incredibly deep roots in Korea and represents a unified country, where a flower can grow without borders.” The word is also used in the refrain of the South Korean national anthem.

As a violinist, Koh is as comfortable performing works by Schubert and Schumann as she is with Schoenberg, Lou Harrison, Carter and Salonen. “I’ve always been a little more on the edge,” she said. “I don’t know how many Koreans came out for my performances of the Ligeti Violin Concerto.”

But Koh clearly expects a big Korean American gathering at Disney Hall for “Mugunghwa.” “A lot of Korean Americans I’ve spoken to are excited about this premiere,” she said. “Many of us have been moved even by the fact that the Los Angeles Master Chorale would commission a piece like this. It’s essentially for us.”

--Rick Schultz

Photo: Jennifer Koh, Mark Grey and the Master Chorale's Grant Gershon at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Credit: Katie Falkenberg / For The Times