Min Kwon

“Each day of the past nine months, I started my day exploring the world of a new composer, and I Zoomed with composers to discuss my vision and purpose for the project of America/Beautiful.

“I was able to convince most, but not all — now 75 composers later, and still some more coming onboard, I can’t believe this is happening, finally. It still feels very much like a dream. But then again, coming to America was once very much a dream.”

Min Kwon, a prominent Korean-American pianist, has made her dream a reality, even while busy with a performance and teaching career in the middle of the pandemic, and taking care of her family. In fact, her two young girls were the inspiration for the project:

Kwon with her inspirations: Sophie Lee, born on Presidents Day, 2013, and Lauren Lee, born on the Fourth of July, 2011; the photo was taken in 2019

“As an immigrant, America has so many different meanings to me. These past few years have left us so deeply divided, and I have often asked myself what kind of a country I will be leaving to my two daughters — whose birthdays happen to fall on Presidents Day and the Fourth of July.”

And so, America/Beautiful was born, composers invited by Kwon writing variations on “America the Beautiful.” Pandemic or not, Kwon will premiere the works over the course of six days, beginning July 4, 2021, in a series of free streamed video performances and Q&As, and two nights of live concerts in a Brooklyn Catacomb.

Steinway Artist Kwon, who is Professor of Piano at Rutgers University, is founder and director of the Center for Musical Excellence (CME), a nonprofit dedicated to mentoring and supporting gifted young musicians. A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music and The Juilliard School, she was the first alumna to serve as a member of the Juilliard Council.

“I’ve been curating and programming concerts for as long as I can remember,” Kwon told SF Classical Voice. “For me, this is the most exciting part of being a musician, not too different from planning a menu for your dinner party or to map out sightseeing stops for your family travel. It’s that storytelling part or putting small pieces together for a big picture for the audience to see [that] most excites me and motivates me in my pursuit as an artist.

Min Kwon with Fred Hersh and Kwon’s sister, the violinist Yoon Kwon, in a Carnegie Hall appearance

“As we hit pandemic back in March, and each day grew darker, it felt important for me to turn these dark times into something that we could also look back and remember with positivity.  

“I wanted future generations of Americans to not only see the clips and to read about terrible illness, death, chaos, and division of our country and all the tears that were shed, but also to learn about many people coming together and creating new energy and powerful new force that turned dark to bright.”

So she turned to the composers because “they have the ability to pen our human expression or response to certain situations and create something new.

“Ultimately this project is about embracing our diversity, and remembering that by understanding, appreciating, and celebrating our differences, we become stronger both as individuals and as a country. The fact that some 75 composers can hear the same song in a completely different way is, to me, something truly beautiful.”

Eight of the 70+ participating composers

Participating composers include include Pulitzer Prize winners (John Harbison, Shulamit Ran, Melinda Wagner, Aaron Jay Kernis, Paul Moravec), Grammy winners (Stephen Hartke, Kernis), MacArthur Genius Fellows (Vijay Iyer, George Lewis, Harbison), Emmy winners (Kris Bowers, John Musto), United States Artists Fellows (Pamela Z, Reena Esmail, Tania León, Iyer, Lewis), Grawemeyer winners (Lei Liang, Sebastian Currier, Kernis), and many more.

Kwon discussing the project on Zoom with Terry Riley, who is composing for America/Beautiful

One of the America/Beautiful composers, Kwon says, is the “incredibly gifted but very private man, Paul Schoenfield whom I am thrilled to have on the project. His contribution to the project is called Aramaic Fuel Tube, and it's absolutely brilliant.

“For those not familiar with Schoenfield’s unique style and sense of humor, here is my sister Yoon and me playing his Three Country Fiddle Pieces: No. 1. Who Let the Cat Out Last Night? His music is almost always hair-raisingly difficult, but wickedly fun to play. I've also had the honor of giving the Asian premiere of his Piano Concerto, Four Parables for Piano and Orchestra, many years ago.

The project is just latest of Kwon-organized activities. Going back some 10 years, she has headed gala concerts at Carnegie Weill Recital with various themes.

Min Kwon | Credit: Jody Somers

“I would invite my students, other studio students, and colleagues to perform. These were almost always grand evenings with 12-25 musicians participating. In 2015, it was a concert of ‘Unknown Diabelli Variations’ where I presented 50 variations other than Beethoven’s, along with seven newly composed variations for the occasion, which picked from a little competition of two dozen submission from our young graduate composers at Rutgers.

“The concert was very successful, and it was so much fun and fulfilling that, ever since then, I’ve been wanting to put together a ‘Diabelli Variations of 21st Century American Composers’.

“After my residency in Academy of Rome, I also presented a concert called ‘Americans in Rome,’ featuring music by those who had been at the Academy in its early years: Bernstein, Copland, Barber, to the most recent Rome Prize winner, such as Stanford Professor Jonathan Berger, whose solo piano piece I gave the world premiere there.

“Looking back at my career, I came to America with a childhood dream of becoming a musician. I read about Curtis in a music magazine in Korea, and I had already made up my mind that is where I was going to go. Luckily, I got in. I was 14. If it weren’t for making America my musical home, it might sound clichéd, but I don’t think I would have had all the glorious and life-affirming opportunities that I had.

“To give back and follow my heart, I have worked with students from 34 countries, I have also traveled to over 60 counties and all 50 States. It was always music that gave me reasons to go to all these places.