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Korean soprano amazes in performance with symphony

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Korean soprano Sumi Jo wowed her audience at the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra concert on Saturday, transforming a quietly polite audience into an enthusiastic crowd of fans, their cries of "Brava!" and "Encore!" echoing through the hall in an extended standing ovation.

Sumi Jo is a memorable, flamboyant performer. Each of her four entries elicited gasps of appreciation for her glittering gowns, stunning confections of gold and silver, soft pastels, sparkling reds and white, accented with dramatic ribbons and sashes.

She began the evening quietly in manner, but by the end proved to be quite the entertainer — dancing with the conductor, acting out songs, arranging people on stage, and inviting the audience to join in.

In a masterfully constructed program, Sumi Jo presented some of the greatest hits — and some of the most challenging arias — composed for her vocal type, a very light lyric coloratura. The arias chosen suited her voice perfectly, culminating in the show-stopping "Doll Song" from Tales of Hoffmann. It was pure joy to hear a beautifully trained voice deliver such difficult works with ease and grace.

Sumi Jo’s voice is clear, warm, and exceptionally flexible, leaping throughout her range, ornamenting notes with high trills and tight vibratos. For some climaxes, she sang higher, alternate notes in passages that are already stratospheric.

In the eternal trade-off between diction and clarity of tone, Sumi Jo leaned toward clarity of tone and was at her absolute best in passages of wordless vocalizing that gave her voice free rein to revel in pure sound.

Two selections were duets with mezzo-soprano Maya Hoover, of the music department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Both duets were lovely, and Delibes’ "Flower Duet" from Lakme was one of the evening’s highlights.

Sumi Jo’s and Hoover’s voices matched perfectly, of similar weight and different but compatible timbres, one brighter, the other darker. Every note, every phrase were synchronized, and their voices allowed each line to remain distinct while melding into perfectly balanced harmony — truly outstanding.

Under the direction of Mexican-American Conductor Jorge Mester, the Hawaii Symphony orchestra sounded wonderful, attaining new peaks in quality. Thoughtfully shaped phrases reflected Mester’s lifetime experience with conducting and delivered a consistently transparent texture so that even inner lines remained clear.

Mester maintained an exceptionally well balanced sound, not only in delicate passages and passionate climaxes, but also between orchestra and singer, ensuring that Sumi Jo’s every note could be heard, offering support without ever obscuring.

Each of Mester’s interpretations was a treat: Tchaikovsky’s "Polonaise" felt like dancing, Saint-Saens’ "Bacchanale" was exuberant without becoming raucous, and Strauss’ waltzes sounded Viennese.

It was also a delight to hear the orchestra showcase its soloists: Concertmaster Ignace Jang (violin), Scott Janusch and Ryan Klein (both oboe), Lindsay Edwards (English horn), James Moffitt (clarinet), Paul Barrett (bassoon), Mark Votapek (cello), and especially Susan McGinn (flute) in a lovely duet with Sumi Jo, a set of virtuosic variations on "Ah! Vous dirai-je Maman" (better known as "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star").

Sumi Jo ended the evening with two encores, including one commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Korean War and hoping for reunification in the future.

If you have not yet heard Sumi Jo, don’t miss this opportunity — it’s a great concert.

There is a 4 p.m. performance today at the Blaisdell Concert Hall and another at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center

Ruth O. Bingham received her doctorate in musicology from Cornell University and has been reviewing the musical arts for more than 25 years.

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