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Review: Hera Hyesang Park’s stunning London debut

Hera Hyesang Park with Bretton Brown
Photo: LKL

When faced with the choice of attending a recital by an opera singer I usually politely decline, whatever the reputation of the singer. The prospect of what is usually a selection of operatic arias performed outside of their dramatic context holds little appeal for me, particularly if the recital is accompanied by a piano reduction of the orchestral score. There several reasons why I made an exception for Hera Hyesang Park’s London debut at Milton Court. Firstly, there were a few songs by Korean composers in the programme; secondly there were no items that were obviously opera arias; there were some interesting, rarely performed Western composers to complement the rarely performed (in the west, at least) Korean composers; there was also the promise of some thought-provoking juxtapositions: the normally astringent Korea Isang Yun followed by the gentle English pastoralist Thomas Dunhill: how would that work? (As it happens, it worked just fine, with Yun in more accessible mode than usual). In all, it was an enticing programme.

Park says in the recital brochure that “Instead of making myself perform a list of songs that might impress others … I want to take a chance on myself and perform songs that resonate with my core values”. Whether or not the programme was consistent with the performers’ values, both Park and accompanist Bretton Brown were supremely comfortable in the repertoire. Relaxed and at ease, they were clearly enjoying the occasion, the music and each other’s musical company. And while the programme was not showy, it certainly more than impressed.

The first half of the recital was the livelier of the two. Park strode onto stage in a gloriously rich blue-green full-length pleated skirt with colourful dancheong decoration which can only have been by iconic designer Lie Sang-bong (some of whose dancheong-inspired designs were featured at the V&A in 2012). The first set of songs shared a bird theme: Francesco Santoliquido’s The Owl Sings, Germaine Tailleferre’s The Tropical Bird, One of Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs  and then Cho Doo-nam’s Song of the Birds: four composers who passed away in the 70s and 80s, and the songs worked together very well. The remaining songs in the first half drew on themes related to boats, flowers, gardens and love. Perhaps the highlight was one of Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, the purity of Park’s voice contrasting with the ripely-scented, other-worldly harmonies in the piano part. Park engaged the audience coquettishly in some of the livelier numbers, adding to the enjoyment.

Hera Hyesang Park wearing a dancheong-inspired dress
Photo: Diya Mitra (diyaonkorea.com)

The second half was a more introverted affair. In an almost kaftan-like monochrome outfit featuring hangul calligraphy (again a Lie Sang-bong trademark) Park started where the first half had left off, on a boat, with André Caplet’s L’adieu en barque which finished with the words “I’m going, tears on my face. – Let us leave these oars forever!”. This last line deftly set the scene for the song which was to form the emotional core of the evening: Woo Hyo-won’s setting of a Goryeo era folksong, 가시리 (Are you going?). This song of love, separation and parting, commissioned for Park’s Carnegie Hall debut in 2023, is in the same emotional space as the more familiar Arirang folk song. While predominantly Western in idiom, Woo’s song employs traditional Korean vocal techniques designed for the scarred vocal folds of a pansori singer. Park apologised in advance for noting that pansori singing was incompatible with a career as an opera singer, but she nevertheless did a very passable rendition of the hoarse, husky voice and broad, choking vibrato needed in the traditional Korean vocal style. But how to articulate the emotional impact of this song? Call me sentimental, but this one had me blubbing uncontrollably, combining the quiet intensity of Nah Youn Sun performing the Kangwondo Arirang with the grief and anguish of Han Seung-seok performing Bari, Abandoned, both of which can be guaranteed to give the tear-ducts a good workout. And maybe I was imagining it, but as the Park drew us into her world of grief, I’m sure I saw the word “한” form out of the calligraphy on her outfit. When the song ended the auditorium was totally silent, no-one wanting to break the spell with applause.

The theme of parting continued with Cecilia Livingston’s Paula Modersohn-Becker, which opened “It did not free me to leave him”. This was the piece’s London premiere. Next came three songs on the subject of clothing and weaving – so varied in style (Britten, Isang Yun, Dunhill) but nevertheless working well as a set. The recital’s final scheduled items were Errollyn Wallen’s hypnotic, lilting seven in a bar Jesus on a Train and La Un-yung’s Psalm 23, another intense but peaceful item on which to finish.

After such a serious, emotional journey Park’s final encore was Lerner and Loewe’s I Could Have Danced All Night, which certainly lightened the mood as Park roamed the stage at times seeming to be about to drag an audience member up to share a dance with her.

It was a well-balanced, enjoyable programme, in which Park instantly engaged with the audience, and there was a tangible chemistry between Park and her accompanist Bretton Brown. The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Woo Hyo-won’s 가시리, which makes it all the more surprising that it was not in the programme when the recital was first publicised, with Schubert’s Der Zwerg in its place. The whole evening was one of those special occasions that you wanted immediately to experience all over again.

Hera Hyesang Park’s latest Deutsche Grammophon album, Breathe, was released in March. It contains the Cecilia Livingston piece as well as another work by Woo Hyo-won, for voice and solo ajaeng. You can hear Hera Hyesang Park again at the Royal Festival Hall on 16 March when she will be singing the Mozart Great C Minor Mass. Browsing Ms Park’s Instagram feed after the concert confirms our suspicion that she was indeed wearing Lie Sang-bong. Translations of the songs quoted above are by Bretton Brown and Hera Hyesang Park.

Below: Park sings Cho Doo-nam’s Boat Song (뱃노래) at Milton Court

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