Making music with the power to unite, Sung Jin Hong '97 and his One World
Symphony offer something different to New York City's crowded cultural scene.
Story by GARY E. FRANK
Outside, it is a sun-kissed autumn afternoon. Inside the cavernous sanctuary of Ansche
Chesed Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Sung Jin Hong ’97 is generating his
own kind of light. Turning from his conductor’s podium, he faces the audience to lead
them in a rehearsal of their part of the upcoming concert program, singing the final
eight bars of Coldplay’s rousing rock anthem “Fix You.”
“We can do better than that, people,” Hong gently chastises. “It’s not a sad song;
it’s supposed to be uplifting.”
“Lights will guiiiide you home, And igniiite your bones and I will tryyy to fix you.” Voices from the audience now merge more confidently with the orchestra’s winds, strings,
and chorus and the pop hymn to a different kind of sanctuary fills the synagogue with
a warm and hopeful sound.
Sung Jin Hong --
Portrait Photo by Kenson Noel Photography
Such moments epitomize what Hong has sought to do since founding One World Symphony
(OWS) six years ago. Breaking down barriers between performers and spectators, classical
and new music, art and daily life, Hong invites you to join him in a communal process
of creative healing — if not to be “fixed,” at least to feel uplifted, even in the
face of uncertainty and suffering.
Hong’s artistic philosophy was put to the test when terrorists struck the World Trade
Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. At that time, OWS was only a few months
old. Scheduled to give a concert just days after the attacks, Hong and his collaborators
decided to scrap their planned program and instead performed Requiem Mass in D minor,
Mozart’s final piece before his death, as a benefit concert for families of firefighters
who died in the Twin Towers.
“It was such a healing event,” Hong later told music reviewer H. Michael Jahilil.
“All the performers and audience members felt something beyond the music; we really
connected with what Mozart wrote.”
Generating such feelings is what keeps One World Symphony vibrantly alive — although
that life is lived mostly on a shoestring. A non-profit organization, OWS sells tickets
for a fraction of the price of what New York concert halls typically charge and also
sponsors inner-city students and their parents who would otherwise not be in a position
to afford classical concerts. The symphony depends on donations to cover much of its
production costs, and offers musicians, at most, a small honorarium (most work for
free) and a buffet-style spread. But there is no shortage of instrumentalists and
vocalists who want to add their talents to the One World mix.
“It’s a small miracle, by New York standards,” says Adrienne Metzinger-Hong, the maestro’s
wife and One World Symphony’s managing and marketing director.
A miracle? Perhaps, but certainly no mystery to those who work with Hong.
“He [has] an infectious spirit and he’s a generous man,” says Rod Gomez, a professional
baritone who is also OWS’s artistic advisor and stage manager. “He brings that to
his performances and to his workings with colleagues.
“He’s a passionate music maker,” Gomez adds. “And everybody loves the opportunity
to make great music.”
A day before the concert at the Ansche Chesed Synagogue, Hong is seated in a sushi
restaurant a few blocks away, discussing the symphony’s 2006-07 season, the theme
of which is “Heroes, Anti-Heroes, and Femmes Fatales.” Five different programs will
carry this theme, highlighted by a one-night-only appearance Sunday, March 11, in
Manhattan’s venerable Town Hall. All the other concerts are held on Fridays at a Brooklyn
Heights church, followed by a Sunday performance at the Ansche Chesed temple.“We have
a very loyal following in Brooklyn, much more so than in Manhattan,” Hong explains
between bites of General Tso’s shrimp.
The season’s opening concert in Brooklyn Heights, which drew nearly 300 people, was
designed as a “9/11 Tribute to Our Heroes.” Interwoven between a performance of Beethoven’s
Symphony No. 3, better known as Eroica, were new or lesser known works by modern composers, as well as the symphonic arrangement
of “Fix You.”
The concert program, which was repeated on Sunday, featured nearly 100 musicians,
including the 40-piece orchestra, another 40 in the chorus, and 15 guest singers from
New York City’s Special Music School, the first public school in America set up specifically
for musically gifted youngsters.
Hong, who is the symphony’s artistic director as well as its conductor, chose Eroica as the season opener because it “epitomizes heroism.” (“Eroica” is Italian for “heroic.”)
“Beethoven may have been inspired to compose Eroica because he originally saw Napoleon as a heroic figure,” says Hong. “He was also inspired
by democratic ideals. Eroica portrays the character of a hero in all its manifestations: battles, struggles, grief,
resignation over loss, and redemption.”
Hong has long been attracted to the musical expression of such themes. An early influence
was John Williams’ sweeping, heroic score for the original Star Wars movie trilogy.
“I loved Star Wars, even before I could speak English,” says Hong, whose family emigrated to the United
States from Seoul, South Korea, in the mid-1980s. “It had everything. It was romantic,
there was good versus evil, and it reflected a great measure of Eastern philosophy.”
Music was an abiding presence in Hong’s life from childhood. Among his earliest memories
are of hearing his mother singing psalms in Korean while working in the family garden
during the evening.
A photo taken during Hong’s studies at the Konservatorium der Stadt Wien (above) reveals
his growing passion for the art of conducting.
When the Hongs first arrived in America they lived near family in California before
moving to Peoria, Ill., where more relatives had settled. Their arrival in the Midwest
began a process of assimilation that Hong often found frustrating. At the urging of
family members, his parents gave their two children Western names, with Sung Jin being
dubbed “David” and his sister, Jahee, “Juliette.” A few years ago, Hong decided to
take back his given name.
“If a Westerner moved to Korea and actually lived there, would he consider adopting
a Korean name? Probably not,” he says.
While Hong’s adjustment to living in the Midwest tended to be restless, he feels he
thrived academically, if not always socially, at Illinois Wesleyan. A music major
who finished one class shy of a second major in religion, Hong considers David Vayo,
professor of composition and theory, as especially influential.
“Professor Vayo was always incredibly generous and supportive. He emphasized that
if you’re to succeed in any field you need to have a strong grounding in the fundamentals,”
Vayo vividly recalls his former student. “His work in my classes was first-rate, and
he participated in class more frequently than any other student. (Sung Jin) enhanced
his formal education by reading and studying a great deal on his own, and reached
out to his fellow students through a popular series of listening sessions.”
The first time Hong participated in the new-music concert series at IWU, Vayo recalls,
he conducted the premiere of a work by Carleton Macy, professor of composition and
theory at Macalester College. “(Sung Jin) rose to the occasion beautifully, and his
subsequent performances on the series were always highlights.
“Even when he was an undergraduate, his conducting eloquently showed his attentiveness
to both fine nuance and large-scale form,” continues Vayo. “He was deeply involved
at all times in bringing out the emotional expression of the music, and succeeded
admirably in moving performers to do the same.”
Hong believes the “strong grounding in fundamentals” Vayo taught compares favorably
with lessons imparted by successful athletic coaches.
“A good conductor needs to be a good coach no less than someone like Dean Smith or
Mike Krzyzewski,” says Hong, referring to two college basketball legends. “You’re
teaching constantly and looking for the best ways to get the best out of people —
to get them to do things they didn’t think they could do.”
Hong honed his conducting skills with a year of study at the famed Konservatorium
der Stadt Wien in Vienna, Austria, during his senior year of college. There, he earned
an artist’s diploma and won the institution’s Maria Theresia Silver Medal Award. After
returning to the U.S., Hong continued his studies, earning a master’s degree in conducting
at Bard College. But perhaps the biggest “breakthrough” experience, he says, was when
New York Philharmonic conductor emeritus maestro Kurt Masur personally chose Hong
to conduct in public masterclass and a concert with him at the Manhattan School of
“In front of a public audience,” Hong recalls, “Maestro Masur said that ‘you’ve got
“it” — you’ve got what it takes.’ He gave me the freedom to convey any conducting
gestures to make music with my fellow musicians in the orchestra. His generous spirit
encouraged me to only focus on the music and inspire the musicians to make music together.”
Hong honed the lessons he learned in college and graduate school while working for
several years as a conductor and music director of the Peoria Sinfonietta and Peoria
Players Theatre Company. In 1999, he made the decision to move to New York City. The
early years weren’t easy; Hong’s first home was a Harlem youth hostel. He played violin
and piano in cafes, tended bar, and worked as a caterer.
Hong leads an intense performance of Beethoven’s Eroica (above). A composer himself and a strong advocate of new music, Hong mixes One World’s
programs to represent a variety of genres, eras, and geographic origins. Photo by Philip Greenberg.
The genesis of One World Symphony happened one year later. Over coffee, he and some
musician friends — including his future wife, Adrienne — decided to combine their
talents to present a holiday concert centered around performances of The Nutcracker Suite and composer Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.
Hong realized that New York City was fertile ground for a symphony that would give
new artists a chance to collaborate in a welcoming environment. For himself, Hong
says, it was an opportunity to “conduct and play some of the greatest symphonies,
operas, oratorios, and chamber music with some of the most caring, talented professional
musicians and generous people from all over the world.”
“He manages to pull off these performances in a city like New York, where you can
hear some of the greatest musicians performing almost everything,” says Stanley Grill,
one of the symphony’s two composers-in-residence. “Somehow his performances come off.
You walk away thinking, ‘Hey, I just heard something really unusual and wonderful.
You can go to the Met or to the New York Philharmonic and not come away with that
“He knows the score in excruciating detail, he knows his players, he’ll say this will
work better with this particular group of musicians,” says Grill. “It becomes a collaborative
experience rather than just playing notes … as if they were somehow sacrosanct.”
The artistic and philanthropic ascent of One World Symphony has been marked by several
milestones. In January 2005, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz even declared
a One World Symphony Tsunami Relief Day to recognize OSW’s benefit concert for disaster
victims. But it was the symphony’s performance last March at Town Hall that heralded
its true arrival on the city’s music scene.
Music legends from Louis Armstrong to Leonard Bernstein have performed at Town Hall,
which has been an integral part of New York’s cultural history for more than 80 years.
Larry Zucker, Town Hall’s artistic and executive director, says that inviting One
World Symphony to perform there wasn’t a hard decision.
“Sung Jin and the One World Symphony were an up-and-coming, fine, young group of musicians
that had already garnered several accolades,” says Zucker. “We were impressed by their
professionalism, their polished, tight sound, their youthful energy, and their willingness
to take on new approaches of the classical music genre. … We received tremendous acclaim
from that concert and did not hesitate to invite them back.”
At the March Town Hall performance, a sell-out audience of 1,500 heard a crowd-pleasing
program of “American Favorites” that included Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. As usual, Hong made certain his listeners had a chance to participate.
“It was quite stirring to hear 1,500 people shouting ‘Mambo!’” Hong recalls with laugh.
In a photo taken at their wedding rehearsal, Hong and his bride, Adrienne Metzinger,
wore traditional Korean hanboks. Says Metzinger, “Even though we had a ‘white wedding,’
we made an effort to embrace Sung Jin’s Korean culture.”
After a final standing ovation, the conductor motioned for silence. With his parents,
sister, and future in-laws in the audience, Hong dropped to one knee and proposed
to a thoroughly surprised Metzinger, who was seated in the balcony. She was then escorted
down to the stage, where Hong once again got down on his knee and placed the ring
on her finger.
“Whether the concert went well or not, it didn’t matter,” Hong says. “I was going
“The audience, needless to say, went wild.”
When One World Symphony returns to Town Hall this March, Hong will likely have a few
more surprises up his formal black sleeve. To those who know him, however, his program
choices will come as no surprise: a selection of famous film scores that includes
John Williams’ Star Wars Suite.
So close to Hong’s heart is Williams’ music that he even requested that “Anakin’s
Theme” from Star Wars, The Phantom Menace: Episode 1, be performed by OWS musicians at his wedding to Adrienne on Oct. 21, 2006. In the
wedding program, Hong wrote that the theme, foreshadowing Anakin’s “ultimate sacrifice,
tragedy, and redemption,” was dedicated to his own parents. “Similar to many Korean
immigrants, my parents have a strong sense of sacrifice so that my sister and I may
be prosperous. They sold many of their personal belongings to immigrate to the ‘free’
world, even their wedding bands.”
Finishing his meal at the sushi restaurant, Hong ordered delivery of assorted appetizers
and main dishes to serve the musicians playing at Ansche Chesed the next day.
“There are more than 70 musicians volunteering tomorrow. There are concerts going
on every weekend in New York City, and some of them could have taken paying jobs but
decided to play with One World,” he says. “Since everyone is volunteering, I’m never
sure if everyone is going to show up.”
But show up they do. Joan Dawidziak, a former nurse and the symphony’s principal oboist,
hasn’t missed a concert in five years.
“What he has done is nearly impossible in this economy because there’s not much money
for the arts unless something is already built,” says Dawidziak. “I would never have
had the chance to play in an orchestra like this because I was told I was too old
to play oboe.”
Vayo is not surprised at his former student’s achievements with One World Symphony,
given the reaction generated by Hong’s conducting while he attended Illinois Wesleyan.
Hong prepares One World Symphony for performance. As a conductor, he tries to encourage
a spirit of collaboration among his fellow musicians.
Photo by Philip Greenberg.
“(Sung Jin) has the strongest leadership qualities of any young musician I have ever
known. His listening sessions, and a student orchestra he organized, created a great
deal of buzz and enthusiasm — so much so that the music faculty decided to curtail
the activities of the orchestra because it was pulling too much of the music students’
time and energy away from their curricular musical activities,” Vayo recalls.
While gaining a sponsor like Town Hall was a significant milestone for One World Symphony,
the ensemble is still a long way from considering itself established in the sense
of the New York Philharmonic or other major orchestras. Among Hong’s aspirations is
that his symphony will have a permanent home someday.
In the meantime, Hong (who also teaches music at a private school in Harlem) continues
to devote as much as 60 hours each week to One World Symphony. It doesn’t tire him,
he says, “because I am living my dream.”
And how does Hong manage to keep his dream alive, when others might become discouraged
and walk away? His wife and longtime collaborator, Adrienne Metzinger-Hong, offers
this insight: “What I have come to realize about Sung Jin is that he has almost no
fear. … Sung Jin doesn’t seem to be afraid to try anything, do anything, ask anything.
The idea of failure is always at the back of his mind, like a question … but it never
prevents him from going forward with something. ... That’s why he, we, and One World
Or, as one of Star Wars’ heroic characters said, “Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.”
* Link to One World Symphony by clicking here.