Tori Ensemble at the Freer
Tuesday, December 23, 2008 at 05:08PM
Stephen Brookes

By Stephen Brookes • The Washington Post • December 12, 2008

Amid all the painful attempts to modernize traditional music -- the jazzed-up Mozart, the rocked-out Verdi, the desperate pastiches that try to pass for "new" - there sometimes comes a work that reinvents traditional music with such authenticity, power and originality that all you can do is drink it in with grateful ears.

Yoon Jeong HeoThat's what happened on Tuesday night at the Freer Gallery, when the Tori Ensemble (a sui generis group comprising three Korean virtuosos and three luminaries of New York's cutting-edge music scene) performed a spectacular and utterly beautiful new work called "The Five Directions."  A collaborative effort based on Asian conceptions of circulation, balance, harmony and discord, its roots went deep into ancient Korean musical traditions: from the hypnotic rhythms of shamanistic rituals to the strange, compelling story-telling vocal music called panosri.

But this was music fully of the 21st century, in all its global, post-modernist glory. Set in five movements, it unfolded fluently and imaginatively across a kaleidoscopic range of styles, anchored in tradition but speaking an exuberant new language.  Meditative solos on the geomungo - the Korean zither - would give way to racing drum duets, bamboo flutes would rise and fall with impossible delicacy; a singer would send her clear, penetrating voice over a field of electronic percussion.

It was an astounding performance, with the effect of a profound journey across centuries of culture that led firmly to the current day, and the audience exploded into cheers at the end.  Superb performances by geomungo player Yoon Jeong Heo, singer Kwon Soon Kang, drummer Young Chi Min, together with the New York contingent -- reeds player Ned Rothenberg, cellist Erik Friedlander and percussionist Satoshi Takeishi - made this one of the most satisfying performances of new music this season.


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