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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Conductor savors chance for freedom on the podium

Seong-Kyung Graham found a niche after she left her homeland Korea.

PHOTO: Seong-Kyung Graham is conductor of the Civic Symphony of Green Bay and the Fox Valley Youth Orchestra of Appleton. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – This happened quite by accident, Seong-Kyung Graham says. This conducting business.

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 Ripon College and directs its Choral Union campus/community choir. She gives private vocal lessons.

Seong Graham was born in Seoul, Korea. If she still lived in Korea, she says she’s not sure what path she’d be on.

“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 United States. The opportunity just blessed me so much to find what I love to do.”

Seong Graham is in her ninth season of conducting the Civic Symphony, which presents concerts at the Meyer Theatre in downtown Green Bay. The orchestra mostly plays tried-and-true works, but sometimes Seong Graham’s programming takes it to new realms. One concert included “Yellow River,” a work-by-committee from China that I, for one, never heard because it’s from the other side of the fence, the communist side. Another concert included “Korean Fantasy,” written by Seong Graham’s brother-in-law; a violinist in the orchestra noticed Seong Graham was teary-eyed while conducting the piece.

“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 Korea. It’s kind of intermingled for a small portion of it – the Korean tradition is there with western music – but I never realized that. And then when I was conducting that music, it kind of brought me memories of, ‘Oh, okay, I remember this. I remember that.’ And the musicians were playing so well of somebody else’s music, and I really appreciated that. Also, the thought that, ‘Wow, I’ve been afar from my culture. I never realized. So that made me emotional.”

One of Seong Graham’s heart-wrenching episodes was played out in public at another concert. Her parents were coming from Korea to a concert at the Meyer Theatre to see Seong conduct for the first time in her career.

“They were in the States. They were in Washington, D.C. They visited my sister’s family first, and they were supposed to fly the next day, Saturday, to be at the Sunday concert. I got a call on Friday night from my sister. She said, ‘I have some bad news. Mom broke her leg, and she had surgery.’ Just mixed feelings of, ‘Oh my God, they will never see this,’ and also, ‘How she’s doing?’ Because I never studied conducting when I was in Korea, they’ve never seen it in life, and I don’t know if they will ever… I was heartbroken. I thought, ‘Finally, they will get to see something that I love doing,’ and they would be proud of me…’”

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 Washington, D.C., after the concert. I flew there and showed the clip. When everybody said ‘Hi’ to my mom, she was crying. And it made my father emotional.”

Flash to Seoul and growing up and thoughts on that.

“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 Korea… I performed one of my sister’s pieces with my choir at Ripon College.” “Korean Fantasy” is by that brother-in-law.

“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 Korea, it’s so traditional a culture that men are supposed to be making money and be in business, whereas girls can do music and do other things. We all learned music except my brother.”

The music Seong was most familiar with was western. I always wondered, “Seoul. Korea. Western classical music. How did that develop historically?”

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 Korea now, Protestants much more than Catholics. And still there is a traditional religion, Buddhism. It’s there, but they are not as active as Christianity probably. Buddhism is kind of more reserved and passive. Where the western religion is not. Their mission is spreading the words of God, so the music growth kind of went parallel to that.

“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 Seoul. Enter her mother.

“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 Korea, just thinking maybe something will come up. So I came to Texas.”

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 University of North Texas (a haven for jazz) to the University of Illinois to the University of Cincinnati. It was at Illinois where things clicked. It was a conducting class.

“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 St. Norbert College’s Knights on Broadway show troupe. The orchestra will take on “Carmina Burana” later in the season. With the Fox Valley Youth Orchestra, she conducts a concert March 16. With the Oshkosh Symphony Orchestra, she guest conducts its May 16 “Ah, Spring!” concert.

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 U.S. I guess it was mostly my mother. Fortunately and unfortunately. Unfortunately, that was not my decision, but fortunately she did. And this is where I met my husband also. I met him (Daniel) in Cincinnati

“I’m glad I’m here, and I do appreciate very much about opportunities and resources that the U.S. has to offer. I mean, this is an amazing country, and I hope everybody realizes that because there’s no other country – I mean, if I was in Korea, I don’t know if I’d have gotten this far, to be honest, career wise. This is the land of opportunity. It is. A lot of impossibilities in other countries can happen here. I probably would never have gotten into conducting if would have stayed in Korea… So it was very, very blessing for me to come here and get into the conducting career. It has been such a blessing. It has been so much for me. So I am very grateful.”

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.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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