view the program from John's concert at
The Church on the Hill, click on the above photos.
by: Malcolm Wechsler
Members of the Pipe Organ List and Other Friends,
few days ago, list member Claire Arnold tipped me off that John
Hong, a young (20) Korean-American organist I had met a year
or so ago, was playing a concert last night in Queens, at Church
on the Hill in Flushing. For reasons that may become clear below,
I determined to attend, and also to drive over early, having
good directions from Claire, but feeling a bit uncertain. I
actually said in an IM to a friend that I had to end the "conversation"
because I was "rushing off to flushing." I barely
made it in time, thanks to a Throgs Neck Bridge undergoing
massive construction work.
good friend Stephen Roberts, in a list posting this morning,
has provided me with a theme for what I want to say about the
event. He said: "For me at least, whatever keeps audiences
interested in the organ and organ music is just fine, as long
as it doesn't descend to utter cheapness."
are, to an extent, two organ music/recital worlds out there,
with two often distinct audiences, and last night, I found myself
in the world not normally mine, and I had a really good time,
as did a large and enthusiastic audience. There are recitals/programs
that do, in some way, bridge these two worlds, and it is perhaps
fairer to say that last night was one of these.
had his feet planted in both aesthetics, in both his programming
and playing. He is a scholarship student of John Weaver at the
Juilliard, having just finished his first year. Acceptance into
Juilliard is already tough enough, but on scholarship is considerably
tougher. He and his twin brother Paul were both admitted and
met them in a New York organ crawl I arranged for my Connecticut
chapter of the AGO. I had posted our itinerary on PipOrg-L so
that others in the New York area might join us. Claire Arnold,
the boys' teacher at the time, and a PipOrg-L subscriber, notified
the boys and their father, The Rev. Eun Sung Hong (also an organist
and pianist), and they joined us first at the Brick Church,
and then at Riverside. Pastor Hong, who is, I think, permanently
attached to his camcorder, was very busy recording our visits
to those two churches, and I learned last night how his collection
of self-made videos of organ-related events and visits has provided
tools for reinforcing the organ learning of his two sons, who
have been organ-obsessed at least since they were ten years
old. I saw in a Juilliard newsletter, and I think someone also
posted on one of the lists, that John Hong was playing in a
student recital in Tully, and I was keen to attend, but could
not. So, last night seemed the chance to catch up.
began with BWV 565 - Of course you know what it is! Toccata
and Fugue in D Minor, played from memory, brightly, cleanly,
clearly, with some occasional bits of cutesy articulation and
registration and some dramatic arpeggiation of big chords, but
a strong performance of the work nonetheless. This was followed
by a Bach Arioso, perhaps arranged by John himself - the program
did not say. He might have announced it, but I have forgotten.
Anyway, this was slush city, with enormous surges of intense
celestial tone, perhaps a bit over the top, but it seemed to
go down rather well. This was followed by a really fine and
exciting performance, again from memory, of the Widor Toccata
from the 5th. Very clean, very solid. Much applause, well deserved.
first group of three pieces was probably an important bit of
education for an audience that mostly, I was told, had little
experience of the great organ literature, and John was no doubt
the perfect person to do the job, being something of a favorite
son of a largely Korean audience. His good spoken program notes
were presented in English and Korean.
next group began with the Ives Variations on America, which
got everything they deserve - campy registrations throughout,
with harp and bells, and lots of other touches that highlighted
the humor inherent in this work - he wasn't serious, was he
- Ives, I mean? I could, frankly, live without hearing the work
ever again, except that on two occasions, I actually have enjoyed
it. The first was Simon Preston, in a Pipedreams broadcast from
Calgary a few years ago, and the second was, in fact, last night,
because John had the security and freedom to make it all fun.
up was a set of Fred Swann variations on "O God, our help
in ages past," which, if I have the story straight, John
and his brother Paul, had learned from one of Fred's recordings
from the Crystal Cathedral, and this may have begun life as
an improvisation. On our chapter organ crawl mentioned above,
Paul had played this at Riverside Church. To me, this is one
long gimmick or set of gimmicks, kind of a weak caricature of
an improvisation by one of the great French or English masters
of such things. However, I do have to say that it really brought
the house down, so perhaps "corny but effective" is
this point in the evening, some things happened that were really
revelatory. First off, a rather remarkable tenor appeared front
and center, and with all the aplomb and voice of a Pavarotti,
but younger and fresher, proceeded to sing The Holy City by
Stephen Adams. John was at the organ, and Pastor Hong took a
seat at the piano, and they let it rip! I don't know where the
Tenor, Sun Chun Park, is plying his trade, but he ought to be
having a major career somewhere - what a voice, and a voice
that easily soared over the combined sound of lots of organ
and piano - a really thrilling experience.
section of the program ended with a hymn - we were given a sheet
with two hymns on it as we entered. I was reminded of my years
in Canada, where, on certain occasions, we were asked to sing
the National Anthem in the language of our choice. The words
of "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" (Coronation)
appeared in both English and Korean. I chose the English! I
don't know who won - the singing was pretty strong all around,
and we were accompanied by John at the organ, with Pastor Hong
doing great arpeggiated riffs at the big Yamaha piano. Every
stanza was in a different key, of course, with decently-done
little interludes that left no doubt of where we were, and when
we should breathe and begin, so it was a fun experience - NIMC
(not in my church!).
third section began with a really strange set of variations
on "God is so Good." I was not helped by not knowing
the tune, but I think I had it by the end. It was kind of a
Quodlibet - lots of recognizable stuff and styles thrown in,
beginning with the Bach C Major Prelude from the WTC, the one
Gounod made use of, and moving at some point into Jesu Joy.
Courtesy of the MIDI stuff, we suddenly, at one point, heard
a women's chorus singing some wordless music, and later on,
perhaps in the next piece, we also heard a men's chorus. It
got me a bit giggly, I am afraid. The composer of this work
was listed as G. Roberson. Much of it is tremendously virtuosic
- really demanding on the player - but John makes it all seem
easy. If you have not already gathered this, he has a prodigious
technique. I am not sure there is much in the organ repertoire
that would stop him.
we heard John as gifted arranger, in a well-practiced but not
written down set of variations on "How great thou art."
It was cleverly done, a sort of "feel good" music
on a tune everyone knows, with lots of registrational changes,
and again, some pretty breathtaking moments of great virtuosity.
There was also a very brief bit of Jesu Joy!!
group of us, including the Hongs, List members Claire Arnold,
Bob Wyatt, and Steven Frank (of the Virgil Fox Society) and
his wife, went out after the concert for a little something,
this after a reception with all manner of Korean delicacies.
One of the things we briefly discussed was copyright, and whether
it applies if one takes a piece of musical property and memorizes
it from a recording and then plays it. (Does Mozart owe Allegri
anything?) This came up because John played an arrangement of
"Great is Thy Faithfulness" by Tom Hazleton which
he learned from an audio or video recording, maybe one taken
by Pastor Hong. If I have the story straight, John possibly
played it for Tom Hazleton, who was suitably impressed if not
amazed. (John did say, at one point, that Tom Hazleton is his
musical hero.) This was another set of hymn variations using
all the tricks, again, brilliantly played and much appreciated
by the audience. We then, in the language of our choice, sang
the hymn, accompanied by John and his father, who really does
know how to use the piano effectively in these accompaniments.
summing up, this was, for me, an enjoyable evening listening
to a young virtuoso playing very well indeed, and pulling a
diverse audience right along with him - clearly, a little victory
for the organ. It's always fun to be part of something like
that. In the realm of the serious organ literature, I heard
nothing new. Like most on this list, I have heard 100+ performances
of the Toccata and Fugue, the Widor, and the Ives, and the Arioso
in its original form, but I enjoyed hearing John play them nonetheless,
sometimes with his own individual stamp. The singing of Sung
Chun Park was thrilling and beautiful, an unexpected and added
bonus. What a lucky organist to have this man contribute to
his recital. The last part of the program was hymns or arrangements
of hymns, with a highly evangelical flavor, played in a good
old Southern Baptist sort of way, and this is enough novelty
to me to make it a fun experience.
benefits of the evening were many. I treasure having met Claire
Arnold, after reading lots of her postings, and after much correspondence,
her other half, Bob Wyatt, Steven Frank, another regular poster
on PipOrg-L, and his wife, and getting to know the thoroughly
delightful and musical Hong family, and to understand a bit
of what makes them tick.
most important person was physically absent from us, but his
presence was surely felt, and that was Paul Hong, the oldest
by 60 seconds of the identical twins. Paul was the dedicated
organist. John was more interested in the piano, although he
was busily building a powerful organ technique. It was Paul
who played at Riverside church when we were there a year or
so ago - John stayed in the background. Paul and John were both
offered Juilliard admission with scholarships. Only John was
able to accept the offer. Paul had, by that time, been diagnosed
with Leukemia, and this past March, he lost an heroic battle
with the disease. Last night's concert was John's memorial to
his beloved identical twin, and it was a most fitting tribute.
I appreciate having been invited to be a part of it.