By Greg Cahill | From the January-February 2024 issue of Strings Magazine
Six years ago, Mikyung Sung recorded a riveting set of tracks showcasing Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and modern works composed for, or transcribed for, double bass. Now, The Colburn Sessions—a double-CD named for the Los Angeles conservatory where the music was recorded between 2016–17 with pianist Jaemin Shin—has been released on the California-based Modus Vivendi label. It features works by Bottesini, Massenet, Hindemith, Montag, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff, and Franck. The album is pure bliss, thanks to Sung’s virtuosic command of the double bass (she deftly navigates the instrument’s high register) and her gift for expressive, lyrical interpretations.
Sung made her professional debut at age 12 with the Guri Philharmonic in South Korea. She has performed extensively as a soloist with such orchestras as the Staatorchester Rheinische Philharmonic, the Colburn Orchestra, and Seongnam Philharmonic, and has won prizes at a number of competitions, including first prize at the International J.M. Sperger Double Bass Competition in Germany. In 2020, Sung and several friends formed the Emeth Ensemble, a double-bass quartet. She has recently moved to Atlanta and is performing throughout the States.
Strings asked Sung about The Colburn Sessions and her love of the double bass.
Tell me about your musical journey. What were your goals? What obstacles have you faced?
My whole life has really been involved with music because everyone in my family was musical, and this helped me, but it was very difficult for a young girl. I’ve been doing music since I was a kid, going to competitions and performing, so there was a lot of pressure and difficulty for me as a child. I didn’t have many opportunities to meet people from different professions other than the musicians around me, so I regret that I didn’t experience more of the wide world. As an adult, I’ve had a lot of experiences with more diverse people, different musicians, and so on, and I think this has helped my music even more. Now I’m married and have a child, but I was worried at first, because I thought being a mother would have a lot of bad effects on my music career. It was depressing and stressful—I think this is a phenomenon that many women go through. I broke down because I was very impatient and focused on my music career. I tried to do too much too soon, and despaired that I couldn’t have the career I wanted any more. After that, my family, good friends, and my precious son helped me regain my strength and confidence. I’m so grateful! Because of this process, I was able to become a little stronger and a little bit more of a wonderful female mom performer.
How would you describe your emotional or spiritual connection to this instrument?
The bass is my companion and friend that has been with me from the moment I was born, because I always heard my father playing. This friend comforts me, and with this friend, I can comfort people and give them joy. We became inseparable because we spent so much time together.
You first picked up bass at age ten. It’s an unwieldy instrument for children. What drew you to it?
My dad and older brother were double bassists. My mom was a pianist, so I started playing the piano when I was young, and then the cello. I always watched my dad and older brother play the double bass. So, naturally, I wanted to start playing the double bass too. I tried it, and I found it very interesting, even more than the piano and cello.
When did you realize that classical bass had an untapped potential as a melodic instrument?
I came to realize this more and more as I played the instrument and learned more pieces. There are so many possibilities.
Yet that capacity is so seldom explored.
This is probably because the double bass is not yet widely recognized as a solo instrument by many people. Most think of it as a large instrument that sits at the back of the orchestra and plays only the low notes. Of course, the double bass plays a very important role in the orchestra, and orchestral performance is very important for most bassists’ careers, so that’s what most players focus on. Even some composers of solo music still approach the double bass as a noisemaker more than a melodic instrument. However, the number of solo players is increasing, and there are some very good players who can show the possibilities. I would be happier if more people were interested in double bass solo performances and enjoyed listening to them.
How do you tap into the emotion needed to make these works sing?
I feel like I’m always thinking about the life I’ve lived, looking back on it, and applying it to my performances. I also try to better understand the composer’s intention and the meaning of the piece.
Did your time at Colburn contribute to your interest in the bass as a full-range instrument?
My experience at Colburn really helped me a lot. Unlike in Korea, there was more orchestral teaching than solo performance. I lacked experience in orchestral performance when I arrived. My teacher, Peter Lloyd, was quite helpful in my solo performance as well. I also took lessons from other instrument teachers at the school, which was really helpful. Everyone gave me a lot of support.
So they contributed to your playing style?
In particular, I learned a lot from studying with cello, violin, and piano instructors. I think that is very helpful for bass players in understanding and interpreting music, and learning from the body movements used when playing on those instruments.
Who were some of the instructors that inspired you along the way?
Clive Greensmith on cello; Fabio Bidini on piano; and Arnold Steinhardt on violin.
Why did you choose these particular works?
I wanted to show the diverse repertoire of the bass.
I was knocked out by Massenet’s Meditation from Thais: your arrangement employs a wide tonal range. What drew you to it?
I just fell in love with this piece, so I wanted to immerse myself in it and show my own interpretation.
There are two sonatas for double bass [Hindemith and Montag] and three for cello [Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff, and Franck]. What was the challenge of transcribing those cello works?
First of all, it is very difficult to play [the cello parts] with a bass because the range is very high. Also, there are double-stops and stretches that cannot be played with a bass, so I had to do some arrangement for this.
Were there works included that proved particularly challenging?
I think every piece is a new challenge and presents new things to learn. So rather than saying any are particularly difficult, I feel like I’m learning more and coming to a better understanding of a piece every time I do it.
Do you hope this CD will bring a new audience to the bass or inspire bass players to stretch out musically?
Yes, totally! I hope listeners can hear that you can play music from other instruments with the bass and also express yourself musically on the instrument. I hope it presents well the many charms of the double bass!
What make and model bass are you playing on the CD? What bow and strings did you use?
I play a 3/4-size 1951 Charles Quenoil, and a bow by H.R. Pfretzschner that has been with me for a long time. I don’t know what strings were on my bass, probably [Thomastik-Infeld] Spirocore Solo or Belcanto, and I use Pops’ rosin. But I don’t care about strings much—playing well is the most important thing.