Circles of Influence
To many listeners not intimately familiar with Jasmine Choi's work, the fashioning of an entire record anchored by two multi-movement "jazz" works might be surprising. You might assume Ms. Choi, who was born into a family of classical musicians (her grandfather was a conductor), who won the Cincinnati Symphony's associate principal flute at age 22, the first Korean woodwind player ever to join a major US orchestra, and who recently joined the Vienna Symphony at all of 28 years old, the first Korean musician in that ensemble’s 112-year history, full stop, would tend toward programs that showcased her technical virtuosity. A careful listen to her previous albums, however, reveals a love of the same operatic grandiosity and romantic melodies that characterize the works on this program. The blistering scalar runs and piercing high notes are there, but they're there in service to the romance.
In truth, Ms. Choi nurtured a love of pop tunes and soap opera music since age 9, when she picked up the recorder (the precursor to her first flute), and maybe before. Years later, when she was studying at Juilliard, Choi relished her first exposure to jazz stars like Dianna Krall, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, and Nat King Cole.
In 2005, Ms. Choi purchased Paul Schoenfield's Four Souvenirs, a whimsical take on Tin Pan Alley songs, reimagined for the concert hall, at a library sale at Juilliard. Choi, immediately taken with the piece, recalls resolving to perform the Souvenirs on a recital program, a goal she finally realized in 2007. In the interim, she accepted associate principal chair in at Cincinnati, where she regarded the jazz, popular songs, tunes from movie soundtracks, and (yes, even) rock songs that crossed her stand on occasion for pops concerts with a healthy degree of detachment and skepticism. At least at first. Several years hence, Ms. Choi was performing Schoenfield’s Souvenirs and this album’s other major work, Claude Bolling's titanic Jazz Suite for Flute and Piano, on recital programs, including a “pop” tour of Korea, and the idea to record a “jazz” album was born.
The Bolling Suite that anchors this record embraces over-the-top romanticism and then some, but its pedigree dates back to the modern origins of recital flute. The shadow of Jean-Pierre Rampal, for whom Bolling penned the piece, and who - just incidentally - put solo flute on the map, looms over any performance of the Suite. Choi wisely avoids taking too great a cue from Mr. Rampal in her rendition, instead approaching the Suite as if it were a new work.
Schoenfield’s Four Souvenirs bookends Bolling’s suite, and provides a segue to the more “serious” material in the latter half of Choi’s program. Born in Detroit, Schoenfield, who, early in his life, recorded the complete piano works of Bela Bartok, is known for his stirring renderings of tango, vaudeville and ragtime music, and Souvenirs, originally conceived for violin and piano, is solidly emblematic of his style. The titles of its four movements - Samba, Tango, Tin Pan Alley, and Square Dance - hint at their inspiration, but Mr. Schoenfield's unique voice is what emerges most strongly, and what ultimately ties the work together. Four Souvenirs fits jovially and unobtrusively into the canon of syncopated 20th century music, somewhere between Piazzola and Hindemith, with a nod to Bartok, and not so far a cry from Francois Borne or Albert Franz Doppler, whose Carmen Fantasy and Fantasie Pastorale Hongroise, respectively, played leading roles on Choi's penultimate record, Fantasy.
To characterize this album as entirely jazz and vaudeville underplays the considerable compositional depth that underlies the rest of the program. Gary Schocker's haunting Winter Jasmine, commissioned by Straubinger Flutes, who made an instrument for Ms. Choi, and written for Ms. Choi herself, bookends the two major works, and is strikingly different in mood and harmonic vocabulary from both. Schocker unwinds a melody gently, and the resolutions and surprises feel intuitive and cathartic. “Like the intensely - perfumed flowering plant which blooms only during the dark of winter,” writes Mr. Schocker of his own piece, “there is sweetness here in the sadness which this music evokes.”
Composer Yiruma's Wait There, arranged for this flute/piano duo by its other member, accompanist Hugh Sung, spins a simple and uplifting melody tinged with pathos that will call to mind any number of kiss-in-the-rain scenes to devoted K-Drama fans, but which also evokes the third movement of Piazzola's Histoire Du Tango. Choi describes connecting with Yiruma's music after seeing her brother practice one of his pieces on the piano.
Eclectic though they are, the genre span between and among the collective works from Choi's various performances is not so great that a common theme of sincere, yearning emotion can't knit them together, and it's that thread that runs deeply and disarmingly through this album, leaving the listener touched as much by the stories and the feelings within them as by the virtuosity of their rendition.