An enthusiastic crowd came to Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night, with two purposes: to attend a benefit concert for North Korean refugees, and to support performing friends and family. While it was clear that the audience may have started as two groups, by the end of the evening the purposes had combined, showing the power of music to bring a wide variety of people together for a common good.
This is the sixth annual event of its kind for the Pacific American Society, an organization led by Dr. Samuel Rhee. While the mission statement on the website is fairly flexible, this year’s concert had a very specific goal: to raise funds for those who have defected from North Korea, through the work of LiNK: Liberty in North Korea. The program started with speeches and videos about the cause, the plight of the citizens ruled by “the most closed and oppressive country in the world”, and what it takes to find a better life. We learned that LiNK was started 13 years ago by a group of college students, as a grassroots movement to raise awareness and to support those in dire need, any way they could. In the years since, they have galvanized support from hundreds of thousands of activists and donors from around the world, and have built a 3000-mile “underground railroad” to help refugees travel the long, treacherous route from northern China, where they are likely to be arrested and returned to North Korea for severe punishment or even death, far south into Southeast Asia, where they can relocate to more welcoming new homes. So far these brave activists have rescued and escorted more than 500 refugees to safety, and they aim to help as many individuals and families as they can. The stories we heard were powerful, and in some cases, left the audience rather stunned. But there was no doubt the impact was keenly felt.
The concert itself started with an orchestral march by Hyun Jung Hwang, followed by some impressive jazz stylings from Richard Rho and Abe Lagrimas Jr. Soprano Hae Hyung Hwang joined the orchestra to wrap up the first half with three grand songs, the first two conducted by Dr. Jeong W. Jin. The last, “Balsamina flower”, also included the choir, and painted a rather grisly picture of the loss of innocence, particularly for young girls, in the face of such oppression. Lyrics were included in the program in Korean and English, and were projected on an overhead screen with accompanying images. Of the first half, the classic “Ari arirang” sparkled, and best showed off the soprano soloist’s talents and power.
After an intermission, we heard directly from one of those who have escaped, who spoke in Korean but with on-screen translation. His very personal story of a childhood and teen years full of fear, hard labor and starvation led to a harrowing tale of running to China through his country’s northern border, falling into a raging river, an almost miraculous escape, and the long journey south.
This was followed by the musical, if not thematic, centerpiece of the event: Mozart’s Requiem, with the full force of the Pacific American Master Chorale and Orchestra. The call went out about three months ago for additional singers, expanding the choral force to more than fifty voices, and the choir has been practicing diligently for many weeks, resulting in a commendable performance by passionate volunteers. Professional soloists Erin Wood, Sharon Chohi Kim, Peter Jeon and Patrick Blackwell all performed well. Ms. Wood’s voice shimmered and spun, and was lovely from the start. Blackwell’s powerful sound and heartfelt delivery were captivating as usual. Mr. Jeon, a tenor whose bright, pleasing sound carried easily over the others, was particularly fine on the “Recordare”. We couldn’t hear as much of Ms. Kim from our section, unfortunately, as her voice was somewhat dwarfed by her operatic colleagues. But listening carefully, it was clear that her warm alto sound is fluid and inviting, and fleshed out the ensemble sections nicely.
It was an unusual musical evening, lending even this already beloved music additional purpose. Thanks to all who worked so hard to put it together.
(Thanks to Julian and Sergio for including us in this event!)