In the early days of the pandemic, pianist Min Kwon realized that, like herself, many musicians and composers weren’t touring. She was also dismayed by the fractured state of the country as the pandemic unfolded, along with the political and social unrest of 2020. And so, she set out to spin beauty from the chaos.
“I felt literally that there was death,” Kwon says. “There were people dying of COVID, and the destruction and division of America felt like death. I wanted to create new life and new birth. I was looking for something iconic, something American that everyone could relate to, and everyone had feelings about.”
Beginning in June 2020, Kwon commissioned 70 of the United States’ leading composers—including a young, Black Juilliard student and a 96-year-old music professor—to write their own rendition of the iconic anthem, “America the Beautiful.”
The result is “America/Beautiful,” a multi-day, live-streaming musical project that will kick off on the Fourth of July. Kwon—also a professor of piano at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts—wove all 70 variations of “America the Beautiful” together. Shen then divided them into six different concerts, which she will be performing solo over the course of six days, culminating in two in-person performances in the catacombs of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. The concerts will be streamed beginning on the Fourth of July at 3 p.m. on the project’s website, Facebook and YouTube channel, and tickets are still available for the two in-person concerts.
It took Kwon nine months to the pull the project together, which she says was also partially inspired by her daughters (who, incidentally, were born on Presidents’ Day and the Fourth of July). Kwon says COVID presented a unique opportunity for her to be able to collaborate with composers when they otherwise would have been touring or performing. “The pandemic gave me the courage to do it because we were all very isolated and confined in our homes,” Kwon says. “This was a time to reach out to people. I wanted to motivate [my colleagues] with a new energy and give them motivation to do something meaningful. So, I started emailing, calling, and Zooming. It was my everyday pandemic activity.”
Kwon has a long history of bringing diverse groups of people together. In addition to her work as a pianist and professor, she’s also the founder and director of the Center for Musical Excellence, a nonprofit that mentors and supports young musicians. She attributes much of this interest to her childhood: Kwon immigrated to New Jersey from Korea when she was just 12 years old to pursue her musical career and was immediately entranced by the diversity of the United States. “One of the things that really shocked me was to see people of all different shapes and sizes,” Kwon says.
With the project’s large and varied cast of composers, Kwon hopes audiences leave her performances with a renewed feeling of love for their fellow Americans and appreciation for the unique diversity that makes the United States special. “The other day I had to count up how many immigrants or cultures are represented in the project, and it’s more than 30,” Kwon says. “It’s a real journey around the world but right here in America. I hope that listeners take that away and realize that this is what America is—and the diversity is what makes us unique and strong.”