Following a year in which most concerts were cancelled or postponed, music lovers are currently streaming into Ocean Grove, NJ’s Great Auditorium this Thursday, July 8, 2021 evening for a live performance by one of classical music’s most distinguished string ensembles, The Solisti Ensemble.
Founded in 2008, The Solisti Ensemble is a 9-member string group which performs traditional small ensemble chamber music in addition to contemporary, pop, tango, jazz, and world music. Featuring founder and artistic director Byung-Kook Kwak on violin, the group’s program at the Great Auditorium this evening includes works by Mozart, Vivaldi, Brahms, Bach, Strauss, and others.
As we wait inside the airy Ocean Grove auditorium for the show to begin, we chat with three friends in the audience who tell us how excited they are to hear this evening’s presentation. Declares Noreen from Ocean Grove, “The Solisti Ensemble is phenomenal; we’re their biggest fans!” before disclosing, “We haven’t seen many concerts due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the Great Auditorium’s Summer Stars series has a wonderful line-up of concerts this season.”
Adds Nancy from Ocean Grove, “Last week, we saw the New Jersey Wind Symphony and we are so happy to have live music here again at the Great Auditorium; it’s such a special place! In the past, I’ve even heard The Solisti Ensemble’s director, Byung-Kook Kwak, refer to it as ‘Carnegie Hall South’ thanks to its outstanding acoustics.”
Bonnie from Ocean Grove agrees, asserting, “This building’s acoustics are incredible! Plus, they just installed new lighting and a new sound system which is excellent,” before concluding, “It’s so nice to be together enjoying live music after having to be socially distant for so long.”
We also chat with Fred and Kathy, a husband and wife from Breinigsville, PA. States Fred, “We’ve come here to the Great Auditorium for many concerts over the years, but we’ve never seen The Solisti Ensemble,” explaining, “I was looking through the venue’s brochure last night and saw this concert listed so we thought we’d give it a try.”
Continues Kathy, “We wanted to see something different. We’ve experienced so many wonderful musical events here over the past 20 years. It was sad last year not to have the venue in operation due to the pandemic, but since we vacation here, we’re planning to enjoy even more concerts this summer, including going to some events with friends who’ve never been here before.”
The auditorium lights blink and Summer Stars Artistic Director Gordon Turk greets the audience. Before introducing The Solisti Ensemble, Turk acknowledges that the group’s founder and artistic director, Byung-Kook Kwak, did not only revise tonight’s concert program once, but four times, before finalizing his choices. Explains Turk, “In the spirit of thanksgiving, Byung-Kook Kwak wanted this program to be one of healing, as well as being uplifting and bringing joy to the audience.”
On a stage which features large banners which read “Restored, Refreshed, Renewed in Spirit,” the audience happily applauds as the nine members of the Solisti Ensemble — violinists Byung-Kook Kwak, Christine Kwak, Rita Wong, Deborah Song, and Maya Lorenzen; Wei-Yang Andy Lin on viola; cellists Nan-Cheng Chen and Sarah Kwon; and Man Wai Che on bass — take their places.
The Ensemble kicks off tonight’s presentation with Mozart’s Divertimento №1 in D major. On the piece’s first movement, the Allegro, the violinists stand as they perform. Sprightly music fills the auditorium as the musicians bow and pluck their instruments with precision and artistry.
Dynamics are evident in this resonant hall where the sound is crisp and clear. The audience is rapt with attention to the soulful melody of the second movement, the Andante, as the interplay between instruments weaves its way through the air. In the final movement, Presto, flawless runs dominate as the musicians become unified with their precise, expert technique and the piece ends with a flourish to animated applause.
After bowing graciously, Byung-Kook Kwak takes to the microphone to say, “It’s so good to be back! I tried to program pieces that are uplifting and that can renew your spirit,” before adding, “Music does something to your soul that nothing else can.”
Kwak and Co. launch into the group’s next piece, “Spring,” from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which features a live narrator who reads aloud descriptive phrases which Vivaldi notated within the musical score. The first movement, Allegro, begins with the narrator stating, “All of the birds are singing in joyous harmony. All is gay and the birds sing happily,” as Christine Kwak is featured on violin. With it’s varied dynamics and lilting melody, the music invokes images of birds singing until a change in mood indicates a storm, after which the birds return to sing again. The second movement, Largo, features the dissonant sound of violins and viola. The long tones of the viola contrast with the violinists’ melodic line, and the tempo slows to conjure images of a goat herder and his flock on a flowered meadow. The violins and viola begin the third movement, Allegro, imitating the cheerful sounds of bagpipes as nymphs and shepherds dance under the beautiful skies of spring. The entire ensemble plays triumphantly, the notes dancing in the air before suspending as the piece comes to a satisfying conclusion.
Following appreciative applause, Gordon Turk joins the ensemble on pipe organ for the next piece, “Sospiri,” by Edgar Elgar, the 20th century composer famous for creating “Pomp and Circumstance.” All 10 musicians are seated as they play on this gentle and lilting yet almost mysterious-sounding piece. The music pulls and pushes the audience along as bows glide across instruments and Turk’s organ — providing parts which are typically played by a harp — fills with its own beautiful and rich sound.
Warm applause ensues and Turk introduces the next piece, “Berceuse,” a lullaby by the late-19th century composer Salome. The organ introduces the piece’s gentle lullaby and is soon joined by the first violins, the second violins, and then the rest of the ensemble. The musicians listen to one another as their parts weave together to create a tapestry of sound. The cellos’ tone is rich and resonant, and the organ interlude builds as the violins answer and call, lulling listeners to relax and enjoy the beautiful sounds in this tranquil concert setting.
The audience reacts enthusiastically, and Byung-Kook Kwak responds by stating, “I love the organ,” joking, “If I was born again I would be an organist,” before getting serious and stating, “It was a long and difficult year. When you listen to next this piece, I hope it will be uplifting. I dedicate it to all of you who have endured emotionally during the pandemic and, also, to my uncle who I lost due to COVID.”
Kwak and the Ensemble conclude Act I of tonight’s program with “Sentimental Sarabande” from Britten’s Simple Symphony. Violins stand as they play long flowing lines which contrast with the plucking bass line. The music is powerful, yet gentle, as it sways and gently lilts.
The viola plucks, the bassist plays with vibrato, and the violins sing along. As the piece swells, it changes mood, and the musicians’ body positions move appropriately with the changes. The dynamics and power of the music lingers as the performers stand motionless at the conclusion, audience members holding their applause until every musician releases his or her bow.
During a short intermission, we chat with Cindy from Long Beach, NY, who tells us that she spent many of her childhood summers in Ocean Grove and that she’s doing the same this summer, as well. States Cindy about the concert thus far, “It’s such a treat! No one has heard live music for 18 months; it’s refreshing! The musicians are putting a lot of energy into their playing tonight. They sound outstanding — amazing, really.”
Declaring, “The wood in this hall makes the music sound even brighter,” Cindy recalls, “There is a long tradition of live music here at the Great Auditorium which goes back to the late-1800s. The first time Handel’s Messiah was performed outside New York was here in 1895. 10,000 people came to hear it!” before noting, “but the most outstanding concert I’ve ever seen here was Peter, Paul and Mary — for me, that was just stunning.”
To begin Act II, Turk retakes the stage and reveals that the next piece, “Humoresque” by Jongen, is a composition that, until tonight, has never been played live in concert. Featuring Nan-Cheng Chen on a 100-year-old cello and Turk on the Great Auditorium pipe organ, the musical pair performs this humorous piece. Chen’s plucking cello is echoed by Turk’s staccato organ before the cello dances along to the organ’s chord progressions, the musicians communicating by sound and nodding heads to create a unified experience.
“Apres un Reve” by Fauré is next, and features Byung-Kook Kwak on violin and Gordon Turk on pipe organ. Kwak’s legato violin line sings above Turk’s moving organ part. As Kwak plays a tremolo part on his violin, a cool ocean breeze enters through the Great Auditorium’s open doors and windows and punctuates the music with a feeling of an endless summer at the shore.
The Ensemble returns for the second movement from Britton’s Simple Symphony entitled “Playful Pizzicato.” Without any bows in sight, fingers dance on strings and fretboards as they pluck out a playful melody. Soon, all of the instrumentalists strum an accompaniment. As the violins and the rest of the ensemble alternate plucking and strumming, they create a piece reminiscent of banjo playing before the main theme returns again and elicits a joyful giggle from several members of the audience.
Kwak introduces the next two pieces of the evening. First, is the Andante from Mozart’s Piano Concerto №21. With its familiar joyful melody, the musicians’ emotional performance clearly connects with the emotions of this happy congregation. Next, Kwak takes center stage as the other musicians sit for a stunning performance of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance №1, in G minor. After the music swells and dances over the audience, rhythmic and prancing, several music lovers can be heard shouting “Bravo!” for Kwak and the Ensemble’s top-notch performance.
The entire Solisti Ensemble stands for their interpretation of Bach’s “Air on G String.” The gentle plucking of the cellos and bass punctuates the legato push and pull of the violins and viola on the composition’s well-known and haunting melody. Bass continues plucking to support the higher voices before the piece ends in joyful bliss.
Last up is Strauss’ “Emperor Waltz,” which sets audience members’ toes to tapping as the famous refrain invokes visions of dancers. Like a kaleidoscope, the music whirls and swirls ever so gently, bringing smiles to many listeners’ faces. Heads nod, softly entranced by the music and the musicians, the dance filling the hearts and souls of the audience and bringing a feeling of joy to the appreciative assemblage.
The listeners respond with cheers and a standing ovation, and the Ensemble reacts with a pair of encores. Following each piece, the audience leaps to its feet yet again as patrons shout out comments including “Bravo!” “Gorgeous!” and “We love you!”
As we make our way out of the historic auditorium and out into the summer night, we chat with several concert-goers who share their thoughts on this evening’s performance. While Jane from Avon calls tonight’s musical event “Memorable,” Larissa from Shark River Hills describes it as “Fantastic. Just perfection. Invigorating!” David from Shark River Halls agrees, adding, “Following the pandemic, if there was ever anything to get back to, this was just the right event to kick everything back up again!”
Lastly, we catch up with the three friends from Ocean Grove with whom we chatted before the show. Asserts Nancy, “It was such a great concert — the Solisti musicians made it look so easy!” Whereas Noreen agrees, adding, “They just love to give the gift of music!” Bonnie concludes by exclaiming, “It was just wonderful! I give it five stars plus!”
To learn more about The Solisti Ensemble, please go to facebook.com/solistiensemble. For more information about upcoming Summer Stars 2021 concerts at the Great Auditorium — including The Fiddler’s Dance: La Fioco on July 22 and A Grand Orchestra Finale featuring Gordon Turk, Jason Tramm, Michelle Johnson, and The MidAtlantic Symphony on July 29 — please click on oceangrove.org.
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