It’s a stormy summer evening in Ocean Grove on Thursday, July 13, 2017, but that doesn’t stop devoted classical music fans from waltzing in between the raindrops on their way to The Great Auditorium to hear classical music’s distinguished string ensemble, The Solisti Ensemble.
Founded in 2008, The Solisti Ensemble is an 11-member string group which performs traditional small ensemble chamber music in addition to contemporary, pop, tango, jazz, and world music.
Featuring violinist Byung-Kook Kwak — founder and artistic director of The Solisti Ensemble — the group’s program at the Great Auditorium tonight includes works by Grieg, Shostakovich, Handel, Holst, Bach, and more.
Welcoming the crowd this evening is Gordon Turk, organist and director of The Great Auditorium’s Summer Classical Music Series.
Describing the outstanding acoustics of the Great Auditorium by likening this historic space to a “giant cello,” Turk further characterizes it “like a great upside-down boat with the ceiling acting like a soundboard to raise glorious music to the sky as the sound of strings vibrate with the wood.”
As artistic director Kwak and the members of The Solisti Ensemble make their way onto the stage, the audience heartily applauds.
After taking their places and tuning their instruments, the group’s violinists nod to one another before beginning the first movement of Grieg’s Holberg Suite.
In the first segment, Praeludium, as the melody runs through the group from violin to cello and back to violin again, bows bounce. During the second section, Sarabande, the music changes mood and fills the Great Auditorium with a soulful, mournful sound; each artist helps to create the soundscape with a gentle push or pull of the bow. Lastly, in the third segment, Rigaudon,the talented string players employ both bowing and plucking to bring the notes on the page to life.
Kwak greets the audience saying, “It’s nice to be back in our summer home for three reasons” citing the room’s “great acoustics,” his love of “working with summer music director Gordon Turk,” and the fact that the historic venue is a “house of worship,” which enables Kwak to feel that he is “in nature with God.”
Kwak makes a short-lived attempt to perform the ensemble’s next piece, but after only a few notes, stops and apologizes, explaining that he needs to retune due to the evening’s humidity. It is interesting to note that with such prodigious musical talent like Kwak’s, even the tuning of violin strings sounds like beautiful music!
Finally commencing with the String Quartet №2 in A Major by Shostakovich, as Kwak and the Solisti Ensemble perform, they build in intensity, their sound swirling around inside this historic venue, embracing the audience in an impressive intermixture of harmony and dissonance.
Introducing Gordon Turk as “one of the greatest organists and souls that I know,” Kwak and the ensemble play Handel’s Concerto for Organ and Orchestra with Turk performing on the historic Great Auditorium organ.Playing flawlessly, every trill and run thrills the crowd as this group of musicians performs with emotion and dynamic expression as if as one.
A highlight of tonight’s performance is a piece called The Yellow Earth for Sheng and String Orchestra, a traditional Chinese folk song by Huang Ruo featuring sheng soloist Hu Jianbing, a member of Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
Kwak conducts Jianbing on the sheng —a Chinese mouth-blown reed instrument consisting of vertical pipes — in addition to musicians on grand piano and percussion. A light rain falls softly outside, adding another natural dimension to this environmentally-oriented piece.
The piano rumbles, contrasting with the erie sound of the sheng. Soon, percussion joins in and the mood changes with the timbre of this eclectic combination of instruments.
Even the string players participate on this piece — not by playing their instruments, but by adding a cacophony of vocal sounds. By the conclusion, the performers are greeted by an appreciative crowd standing and applauding!
Calling for yet another tune, Jianbing returns to the stage with a second sheng.
Sounding somewhat reminiscent of a harmonica, Jianbing expertly creates a unique world music listening experience for the crowd, the rapt audience totally enthralled by both the sound and its player.
Again, Jianbing’s world-class talents are rewarded with a second standing ovation.
Following a short intermission, Act II commences with Jupiter from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst.
Kwak explains to the audience that Holst only included seven planets in his composition because, at the time he wrote it, Pluto had not yet been discovered and, jokes Kwak, “Holst didn’t especially like Earth.”
During the performance of Jupiter, the rapid playing of the string instruments move as one and the players enthrall the audience with their sonic interpretation of a planet which, according to Kwak, symbolizes “jollity.”
Next, the beautiful melodic line of Bach’s Air on the G String entices listeners to enter into an auditory landscape where pure music prevails. The bass walks along supporting the cellos, violas, and violins as they float above.
Nearing the conclusion, the audience pauses for a moment to let Kwak’s last violin note linger and slowly fall away to complete silence before applauding, not wanting to break the magical spell of this ageless classic.
Turk is invited back to the stage to play the grand organ on Solvjg’s Lied from “Peer Gynt Suite” by Grieg. On this piece, the haunting melody is carried by the strings and masterfully supported by Mr. Turk’s performance on the magnificent Great Auditorium keyboard.
For the final presentation of the evening, Kwak and The Solosti Ensemble perform the fourth movement of Tchaikovky’s Souvenir De Florence, the Allegro con brio e vivace.
On this selection, quick bows fly to a stunning finish, bringing the entire crowd to its feet!
Kwak takes a moment to mention an upcoming concert which will take place at The Great Auditorium on August 3. Entitled Orchestra Legends and Romance, Turk reveals that his daughter, Solisti Ensemble violinist Christine Kwak, will perform Tchaikovsky’s legendary Violin Concerto on a very rare and historic violin.
Following an encore, the members of The Solisti Ensemble receive “bravos” from the standing crowd as this group of talented musicians takes a well-deserved bow!
After the concert, we’re delighted to be able to take a few moments to engage in a conversation with both Gordon Turk and Byung-Kook Kwak.
Gazing out over the Great Auditorium, Turk comments, “It’s amazing to think that this building was built 148 years ago by 26 men in 90 days without power tools,” going on to note, “2019 will mark the hall’s 150th anniversary.”
Kwak nods and adds, “I love playing at the Great Auditorium. You feel the ambience of God’s spirit here. There is a unique beauty here. In fact, I refer to this as ‘Carnegie Hall South’ because of the wonderful acoustics. And when I look at the dome of the ceiling, I always think of Noah’s Ark!”
Upon hearing that, Turk exclaims, “I do, too!” and the two talented musicians slap each other “five” with a chuckle.
Following the performance, we also chat with violinist Christine Kwak, daughter of Byung-Kook Kwak.
Christine tells us that she is excited to perform Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concertohere at The Great Auditorium on Aug. 3 “on the Guadagnini 1751 violin” — the same instrument that was played the very first time the Tchaikovsky piece was ever performed!
A fan of The Great Auditorium, Christine recalls, “I first performed her in 2009. I loved playing here then, and I love playing here now,” before going on to note, “The audiences are always so warm and receiving here.”
In addition to these talented performers, we also get an opportunity to chat with several audience members who braved a summer storm in order to experience tonight’s performance of The Solisti Ensemble at The Great Auditorium.
States Carmen from Toms River, “You get a spiritual feeling here listening to beautiful music played in this spiritual home.”
Adds Drew from Ocean Township, “This is the best value in music in the state of New Jersey. Everyone should support this classical series! I’ve been attending for a few years now, and tonight’s concert by The Solisti Ensemble was yet another outstanding performance.”
Likewise, David from Manasquan reveals, “I’ve been coming to The Great Auditorium for 70 years — for church revivals, choir festivals, and organ recitals — for as long as I can remember.”
Having seen The Solisti Ensemble several times before, David calls tonight’s concert “excellent,” before adding, “The sheng is such an interesting instrument — this group always brings something new to their concerts.”
David’s daughter Sara, a church organist and public school music teacher, agrees, recalling, “One year, The Solisti Ensemble even performed LeRoy Anderson’s ‘The Typewriter.’ As a result, we look forward to the return of Byung-Kook Kwak and his ensemble every year.”
Sara’s mom, Nancy, also concurs, adding, “This group has such a beautiful sound. We’ve heard them five times, and we come back every time; they always do a great job.”
Lastly, Maureen from Long Branch sums up the feelings of many in the audience tonight who, despite the rain, came out to experience The Solisti Ensemble, when she concludes, “Bravo! They’re terrific!”
To learn more about The Solisti Ensemble, please go to solistiensemble.org. For more information on upcoming performances at Ocean Grove’s Great Auditorium — including guitarist Chaconne Klaverenga on July 27, and Orchestral Legends and Romance featuring The Solisti Ensemble’s Christine Kwak on August 3 — please go to oceangrove.org/summer-stars.
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