PHOTO: Seong-Kyung Graham is conductor of the Civic Symphony of Green Bay and the Fox Valley Youth Orchestra of Appleton. Warren Gerds photo
Now, Seong Graham savors the opportunities to be swept into freedoms she finds on the podium.
She says, “I like the conducting beyond. I like the fact that it can go beyond the technical aspect and the study and the preparation. If that’s the end of it, I wouldn’t probably be doing it. But because once I get to that point, I can go beyond that. I guess that’s what I love about it. It takes a long time to get to that point – lots of preparation, studying backgrounds and researching and analyzing and practice, practicing conducting and memorizing the music. That takes a very long time. But once I reach that point, I can become completely free, and that’s what I love about it. And once I get to that, I can actually play around what’s there on the page and make it a three-dimensional, live art form. And that’s what I absolutely love about it.”
Seong Graham is conductor and music director of the Civic Symphony of Green Bay and the Fox Valley Youth Orchestra of Appleton. She teaches at
Seong Graham was born in
“Oh, certainly not the conducting career. I might have met someone, got married, have children – and maybe I might be working at some musical jobs, maybe teaching lessons. But I don’t think I would be doing conducting. Not that getting married and having children is anything bad. I am married, very happily and no children but I have two puppies. But I don’t think I would have gotten this far in a conducting career. Everything happened after I came to the
Seong Graham is in her ninth season of conducting the Civic Symphony, which presents concerts at the
“I never thought I would be,” Seong Graham says, “but it kind brought me memories of things that I guess I never thought were there from when I was in
One of Seong Graham’s heart-wrenching episodes was played out in public at another concert. Her parents were coming from
“They were in the States. They were in
At the concert, Seong Graham told the audience what happened. Her husband was recording the concert, and she had everybody in the audience say “Hi” to her mother in Korean.
“I took the video and went to
“My mother loves music. My father was a businessman. My mother used to sing. She sang in choirs. She did solos. She was into music very much. She wanted most of her children to learn music, how to play piano. We all started with the piano. Not everybody stuck to it.”
Seong is the baby of the family of five children. Her next oldest sister learned to play violin; she went into political science. Her second oldest sister learned cello; she went into special ed. Her oldest sister “actually is a composer. Her husband is also a composer… They are teaching it in
“My mother’s dream was making a piano trio – a piano player, violin player, cello player. I grew up singing. I went to arts high school. That was a very privileged school. I did go into college with voice, but I was never confident with it. Another dream of my mother is having us all get a doctorate degree and come home and live with them ever after. But that never happened. I have one brother. In
The music Seong was most familiar with was western. I always wondered, “
Seong Graham says, “It came with missionaries at the end of the 19th century. There was a huge gap. I think it stayed on during the Japanese ruling period and then the Korean War. But I think after the missionaries came, it stayed on and kind of grew. It grew very fast after the Korean War.
“It goes with the religion, Christianity. Christianity grew very, very fast. There are lots of Christians in
“You know what, sadly and unfortunately, I never learned Korean traditional music. There’s a class in college that I took. But other than that, I never learned it. It’s all western music that we learned.”
Seong earned a bachelor’s degree in voice at Sungshin Women’s University in
“Going back to my mother’s dream – she wanted me to go out, go abroad and get a doctoral degree. That was her dream. So after I graduated college, I didn’t know what to do and she wanted me to go, so I thought, ‘Oh, since I have no I idea what I’m going to do with my life, okay, I’ll go.’ I didn’t have a clear goal when I left
Seong admits she choked at the vocal audition. But she was in the States. It was 1989.
“I was still not sure that was the right road that I should be taking. I was very envious about people saying, ‘I love doing this. I absolutely love doing this.’ And couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say it about singing. I couldn’t say it about what I was doing. I’m a Christian, and I kept praying, ‘Okay, can I find something that really makes me say, ‘I love doing this.’ It took a long time.”
Her route went from the
“About two months into it, it just flipped all my life. It changed everything. It actually flipped upside down. My orchestra teacher taught not only technical stuff – what he emphasized was being centered. You have to center. I mean, every single class that’s what he emphasized the most. I just exactly followed what he asked us to do. Within two months – I felt like I was born again. Literally, I was born again because everything was overflowing, musically and in all aspects. My eyesight was very narrow until that time, and then while I was experiencing that it just opened up 360 degrees. I mean, I was able to literally see things I’ve never seen before.”
Seong Graham is conscious she deals with an element of disbelief.
“I think I was meant to do this. It’s okay if you don’t believe in that kind of stuff, but I do believe that I was meant to do this. But I think, as a Christian, I do think God guided me in a long route – because I didn’t – to prepare me for the next step, for the next step, next step… I didn’t start my conducting career, or conducting period, until I was 30. So it took me a very long time to prepare for that step. Yeah, sometimes I wish I would have started earlier, but do I have a regret? No, I don’t. I’m absolutely happy that I found this route and what I’m doing.”
Immediately ahead is a concert Saturday, Feb. 15, with the Civic Symphony. Title: “A Valentine in Song,” featuring area singers Kent Paulsen, John Plier and Courtney Sherman and
Thinking back on growing up, Seong Graham says she’d be surprised by this.
“Absolutely. I never dreamt of being a conductor. This was not in my wish list.”
Often overlooked is the music director part of the position – being heavily responsible for choosing the music that will be played. “In a sense, it’s easier to conduct – just conduct, coming in and conducting (as a guest, for instance). Then I don’t even have to worry about it. But it’s more fun to be a music director because then you get to create somewhat… That’s part of the fun. It is time consuming, and it’s a long process to try to find pieces that are entertaining as well as playable and educational. It is difficult, but at the same time it is fun. And I get to learn music when I’m searching for it.”
Irony is all around in Seong Graham’s story.
“I didn’t decide on coming to the
“I’m glad I’m here, and I do appreciate very much about opportunities and resources that the
Why does Seong Graham love what she’s doing? The leading? The discovering of music to play? The perpetuation of classic music? The mutual goal of the musicians? The sound?
“Well, I can say maybe none of it or all of it. I l ove it because the experience will go beyond all of those. But without those, I cannot get there. And once I get there, it’s the freedom that allows me to bring everyone who is playing as well as the audience that is listening to the wonderland that I love to go. And although that may not happen every single piece, that’s my ultimate goal – to take everyone to that magical place.”
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