GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Seong-Kyung Graham includes a bit of adventure in programming the Civic Symphony of Green Bay.
“I like new things. I don’t want to repeat things, although I do if it fits the theme. But I like doing something new so that it’s not just the old, same stuff.
“When I was watching my teacher when I first got into this in Illinois, what drew me was the making music three dimensional. It’s not just waving the hands or reading out of the score – you know, a one-dimension score. When I was watching him, it became real, it became alive like in the air. And that’s what inspired me, and that’s what I try to do.
“It really wasn’t boring when I was watching. If it sounded boring and looked boring, I wouldn’t have gone for this. I would have done something else. It makes it very, very special.
“I’ve watched other conductors, and some are very flat. It doesn’t give me any excitement, any joy, any inspiration. To me, that’s meaningless. It’s just a sound. And I don’t want to do that.
“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to make it special. I’m going to really convey what it’s meant to be and filter through our players and myself. And it is possible, and the audience feels it. They see it, they feel it.
“You know, we’re not professional. There’s always going to be mistakes. People have so many various ranges of skills, but we are focused. When we come together as performers, it’s not little mistakes that matter. It’s as a whole, are we really inspiring to people?
“When I go to recitals or concerts, I don’t care about little mistakes if I can be fulfilled by watching. That’s what I look for.”
Seong-Kyung Graham has conducted the Civic Symphony of Green Bay for 15 seasons. Her route is explored in part one of this column, the link of which is here:
She savors performing with the orchestra and determining the music it will play.
“A music director makes all the programming and plans for how the orchestra needs to go, whereas a conductor can be a guest conductor or just focus on conducting. So music director or artistic director is much more in depth and broader.”
Does she have a lot of latitude?
“Somewhat, somewhat. I have my opinion. I have my vision. Sometimes they can be the same, sometimes they can be different from the board. When it’s the same, it’s wonderful. When it’s not, you know, it’s just like any relationship.”
She works with a programming committee of seven.
“Yes, they do send me suggestions. So I consider them, and I try to incorporated their suggestions many times so that it’s not just my way. It’s as a team.”
Among the 60 or so programs she has performed with the Civic Symphony of Green Bay, Seong-Kyung Graham was asked to pick out her five favorites.
One. “New Site, Familiar Sound,” featuring the formidable Giuseppe Verdi “Requiem,” Cofrin Family Hall, Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.
“I mean, it had so many obstacles. The major one was because of the snowstorm, we couldn’t have the concert on the day (April 15, 2018).
“I remember still. I couldn’t even believe it the day of the concert. I was still thinking, ‘We could still do this.’ Maybe I was pushing it way too much.
“I called Randy Meder (choir director), and I said, ‘Are you serious? The Weidner is closed?’ And he said, ‘There’s nobody who can work to get the snowplowing done.’ So that was pretty hard to take.”
A ridiculous 24 to 30 inches of snow fell in the area.
“Yes, in the middle of April. Oh my gosh, I don’t think I ever saw that much snow. Of course, the city was locked down.
“So we had to reschedule. At first, there was talk of just canceling…
“We were supposed to have over 200 choir members. When we rescheduled – because it was after the school year, after graduation day, and I think St. Norbert had graduation that weekend, on the day of the rescheduled concert – we lost a lot of choir members. We had about 130 or 140 people on the stage.”
Seong-Kyung Graham’s choice of the Verdi “Requiem” is not because of the snowstorm, it’s because of what happened. There was a performance. The concert of May 13, 2018, required marshalling a large force all over again.
“Absolutely. It has a lot of stories. I think what sticks in my head for memorable concerts are the ones that had troubles one way or the other. I mean, we have had fantastic soloists, and there are other concerts that are just fabulous, but Verdi ‘Requiem’ sticks in my head because it had so many up and downs.
“Two of the soloists were from Illinois. They were up here when the snowstorm hit. We had dress rehearsal with them but couldn’t do the performance. And when we rescheduled, one soloist had a parent who was having surgery and a couple of soloists were actually a married couple, so both of them couldn’t be here for the rescheduled performance. Only one could. So alto Katherine Donner was here. That’s when we contacted (Green Bay native) Scott Ramsay, and he just came in at the last minute and did a fabulous job.”
Two: Carl Orff: “Carmina Burana,” Meyer Theater, in front of a full house.
“It was April 2014. The reason that it’s memorable for me is because of what happened in the concert. I actually didn’t know what was going to happen because we put to choir up in the balcony on one side because there was absolutely no space on the Meyer stage.
“Always the acoustic changes when the audience is in the hall. So when we practiced – we had a touch-up rehearsal – it was not real. It was okay, but I did not know what was going to happen.
“As soon as we started, and the choir came in, it was just like electric. It was like a Surround Sound System. The sound just hit you on the face, and it was just absolutely amazing.”
Normally in a concert, the choir is behind the orchestra, and the audience sees the back of the conductor conducting both. In this case, Seong-Kyung Graham turned around and was facing the choir above the audience. Seeing her expressions added a different perspective.
“Because of the distance, there was no way I could encourage the singers. I mean, the balcony was so far away from me.
“It’s so much more exciting when we have a choir. It adds so much color, and the words and the sound of the voices.
“For me, it adds a lot more pressure and work because I have to be more with the choir than orchestra members. They’ve been with me throughout the rehearsal, but the choir I usually meet in the last week. So I have to be with them, I have to know the score inside and out and that’s what I try to do whenever I have a choir. I memorize the score, otherwise, especially if they are in the back of me, I can’t turn the page on the score if I don’t have it in my brain.
“But it’s so rewarding for me to have that music, that sound. Every bit of it is absolutely worth it.”
Three. An outdoor concert in Green Bay Botanical Garden.
“That was the summer of 2018. Again, the weather was a problem. We had a rainstorm prediction.
“We rehearsed parts of the concert early, and then it started to rain, and there was wind. So we had to evacuate from the stage with all the instruments and wait for quite a bit. We didn’t know if it was going to stop in time for the concert or not. But luckily, yes, it stopped and the sun came out.
“So we were able to do the concert. It wasn’t a huge crowd because of the rain, but we had a nice crowd of about 600 people. And it was a pretty fun concert. Short pieces but a fun concert. Again, weather hindered what goes on.”
Four. “Festival Musica di Italiana,” Meyer Theatre.
“The last February concert (2020), the Italian concert, was pretty fun. It was a lot of work to collaborate with NEWDO (Northeastern Wisconsin Dance Organization) and St. Norbert Chamber Choir, but I think everything came together quite nicely. And amazing soloists, Yi-Lan Nui (of St. Norbert College) and Scott Ramsay (of professional ranks). They were absolutely top-level soloists. I think the orchestra played quite well that day, so I was very pleased.
“I love collaborating with Timothy Josephs (NEWDO artistic director). Usually dance directors say, ‘Too fast’ or ‘Too slow.’ (She laughed). That’s the problem with dancers. But he’s very much aware of that situation, and he’s very flexible. The dancers are right on always.
“For the dancers, it’s just doing the touch-up and the concert. But he’s always very well prepared with his dancers so they can do it very nicely for just one day of work together. And he likes to collaborate for that particular reason. The dancers don’t get to perform with live music. They usually do it with a recording.”
Five. “Unfinished Potential,” with Bay Port High School Chamber Ensemble, Cofrin Family Hall, Weidner Center for the Performing Arts.
“Bay Port High School’s collaboration last year in April was a very unique concert. My focus was not trying to show what we can do but more for educational purposes.
“We played Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (‘Unfinished’) together and (Mozart’s) ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,’ and the students were just very cooperative, very well behave. Audrey Nowak, their director, worked with them so nicely.”
Among other memorable concerts of Seong-Kyung Graham is one that’s notable for what didn’t happen. Her parents never got a chance to see her conduct in person.
“No, not live. They planned (to come from Korea) to see a concert. They were in Washington, D.C., because my sister was living there at the time. So they visited her, and the night before, they went to their friend’s house for dinner. That’s when my mother broke her femur bone. She had osteoporosis, so she had very weak bones. It just happened on the doorstep, so they had to rush her to surgery.
“Unfortunately, that was the only week that they could come and watch me, but they couldn’t. So I brought the tape from the concert (in which the audience sang to her mother), so they watched on the tape.
“My mom passed away since then. She had severe Alzheimer’s and suffered a very, very long time, and she passed on two years ago. My father is very healthy and very well…
“I wish they would have seen me. I started my conducting here after I came here, so they never had a chance over there.”
To end on a brighter note, this:
“I’m very blessed to be where I am and to be what I am doing. So I am very blessed and grateful for that.”