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REVIEW: One World Symphony Premiere Sung Jin Hong's 'Breaking Bad--Ozymandias' at Church of the Holy Apostles

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Jan 29, 2014 06:37 PM EST | Ian Holubiak (i.holubiak@classicalite.com)

REVIEW: One World Symphony Premiere Sung Jin Hong's 'Breaking Bad - Ozymandias' at Church of the Holy Apostles

One World Symphony, led by Sung Jin Hong, has been reckoned "the hippest orchestra in town," and both musical parties certainly lived up to that moniker with the inspired 'Breaking Bad--Ozymandias.' (Photo : Jaka Vinšek)

Duality is a part of the internal struggle, and it instigates the dichotomy between our two opposing inner forces. A co-internal existence of two opposing moral codes--benevolent vs. malevolent, right vs. wrong--is an idea that has been proposed and anthropomorphized in both archaic and modern texts time and time again.

The duality of men and women serves as a profound topic in not only literature and metaphysics, but in the sense of the gender binary as well. In this case, in the sense of an orchestral composition, music, too, becomes capable of capturing the elements that divide our moral conscience.

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Specifically, this idea of distinction has captivated audiences of the acclaimed AMC television show Breaking Bad. If you're a fan, then you know Walter White's internal conflict with right and wrong, his moral compass that consistently leads him astray--and in fugue state, where he reflects on his own morality as he tries to escape it.

The other night I was invited by Sung Jin Hong--leader of the One World Symphony--and his wife, Adrienne Metzinger, to come witness Hong's world premiere of his Breaking Bad opera at the Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City.

The performance sold out both nights, which solidifies the fact that it was worth the time and money.

The show opened with three compositions preceding the Breaking Bad spectacle.

First was a scene from Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman, 1843) sung by soprano Heather Green. Its succinct but undulating foundation, where the horns and strings swayed like the unhung ropes of a steadily sinking ship, could have also been the soul of a pirate ,as he wanders the open seas to no avail. Perhaps the impurity of his soul, coupled with the swaying brass and strings, captured the sense of duality embedded in the text.

Next was my personal favorite, an excerpt from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (an opera based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin) sung by soprano Irina Mozyleva. Here, Hong suitably drew out the dilemma in the narrative--the piece pulls from a scene where Tatiana, a woman who has fallen madly in love with the titular protagonist, verbalizes a love letter she is writing to her love interest who is, yes, Onegin.

This was where Hong's brilliance manifested, from both brass and strings. His ability to lead an orchestra through the corridors of Tatiana's frantic thoughts proved versatile. The way the orchestra leapt from bright to dark tonality spoke to the narrative also, similar to that of Tchaikovsky, himself. And yes, Tatiana's schizophrenic dialogue when composing her letter could be considered her dualism; the connection the symphony had in articulating this was starkly apparent.

The first half wrapped up with a performance of "La Mort D'Ophelia" from Hector Berlioz's Tristia, Op. 18--featuring soprano Sonya Headlam. This piece is what led the audience to the crux of the show. The aria was both self-reflexive and bombastic. While it resolved peacefully, it was contrasted by acquiescent timbres (provided by a piano and harp) and large drum hits (which made way for the duality of the piece). This truly encapsulated Berlioz's failed marriage and his unrequited love, in which he tried to re-establish his union. His idée fixe was effectively conveyed here.

These three pieces set the tone for the night, detailing the ease and dexterity of Hong's baton, as well as the symphony's knack for dynamic control.

Finally, the moment we had all been waiting for, the world premiere of Breaking Bad--Ozymandias. As indicated, Hong's opera was paralleled by Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias," a poem that talks about how fleeting material possessions blinded this king of kings and how the volatile nature of power lead to the destruction of his entire kingdom--rendering him lonely and without power, money or influence.

Yes, Walter White certainly fell from grace in the TV series, but now Hong was able to make an opera sound like the television show, which only spoke to his innate abilities as conductor and composer.

Broken into five parts, the "Bitch-Aria" (a term coined by Jimmy Fallon but reappropriated by Hong) began Chemistry, a very dark succession of slow strings and low brass, all of which catered to the dark nature of the series.  Slow, sporadic tones made the movement unnerving, impending with deep regret. And yet, this was just the beginning. This is where Walter White wants to become "Heisenberg."  To wit, the moment was heeded by what Hong calls his "Heisenberg Chord" (an embellished and dissonant polychord) that almost sings, "I am the danger." At the end of this first movement, the brass exemplify the golden glory Mr. White (almost "Heisenberg") felt with his patented blue meth.

Next, One World meandered through Walter's fugue state, reflecting on his past as it comes to haunt him in a most immediate way. The bitonality, as Hong called it, replaces the score's central tonic note with a multi-tonic base--an idea that really delves into the social landscape of Walter's folly as a father and his immediate revival as a villain. It is at the end of this second act that Walter White literally dons his hat--this was performed by Jose Pietri-Coimbre, who proceeded to sing a Walter White soliloquy--and fully becomes "Heisenberg."

The third movement serves as Walter's moment of clarity, where he finally finds his path. And so, Hong lead us down this pathway to our lesser desires, our lowest pleasures and to our moment where we recognize the true folly of man: hubris.

Walter's "eureka" moment elides into Jesse Pinkman's dream sequence, the fourth act. This was where Hong required audience participation. Specific members of the crowd were told to scream Pinkman tropes like "Yo, bitch," and "Wake up, bitches." A little unsettling for these four members, maybe, but when spoken in the context of the aria, they fit like a finished puzzle.

What I found interesting, particularly in this fourth section, was Hong's allusion to Goethe's Faust, wherein Hong makes Pinkman out as Gretchen, the moral compass to Faust, though easily persuaded by him, to indulge in evil. Maestro Hong, you were spot on with this reference.

Ultimately, Jesse's dream brought us to the fifth and final movement, Ozymandias. The climax of all evil and good, the rise and fall of New Mexico's meth kingdom, comes to fruition here in Hong's last segment.

"'Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck," is sung with belt force by Pietri-Coimbre, brings us to the essential moment of dualism in Walter's identity--the final battle between the opposing internal forces of his moral conscience. Walter sacrifices himself and his illegal kingdom to end the painful happenings of his past. And yet, even in death, he cannot be absolved.

The drums pound, the brass yells, a piano chord runs through a sound like someone falling into the earth. Meanwhile, the chorus--which reminded me of the one from Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex--croons at an eerily low volume:

"Boundless and bare / The lone level sands stretch far away." And then, it ends. But not before one more triumphant punch, like a hand grasping onto a cliff that inevitably lets go.

Sung Jin Hong may have created something of a masterpiece. He cites that a binge-viewing of Breaking Bad over a four-day period rendered him sleepless until he composed the opera. While I find it understandable that he could watch Breaking Bad in such a brief period of time, I find it remarkable to think that Hong has the aptitude to lay down a full opera in just three months.

So, while you may have missed the moment to witness a heart-breaking work of staggering ingenuity, Hong won't be leaving us anytime soon.

And yet, that looming sense of duality in the context of the "Bitch Aria" pervades the entire landscape of his composition, intertwining music and voice with inventive structure and self-reflexive themes. We all possess the internal struggle, but are we exempt from similar implications and trajectories central to Walter White and Breaking Bad? In my opinion, as well as Hong's, we are all "breaking bad."

Thus, we are "the ones who knock."

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