Intense, Ironic, Iconic: Hahn-Bin Takes Joe’s Pub at The Public

New York, N.Y. “Hahn-Bin, the World’s Saddest Clown, Dies at 24.” So proclaimed the faux New York Times article on each table before the performance began. It continued, “He committed suicide… just hours after the alleged murder of his ex-lover.” So began one of New York’s most mesmerizing, strangest and strongest musical performances of 2011.

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One of New York’s most mesmerizing, strangest and strongest musical performances of 2011.
Photo: (c) 2011 Kevin Yatarola (www.kebya.com).
Hahn-Bin is the ultimate perfectionist. The theater manager confided to me the musician had arrived ten hours before the concert to prepare — to get everything just right. And just right it was. Arising from the magician’s box surrounded by assistants in the middle of the theater, Hahn-Bin then mounted the stage to thrill his sold-out, multi-ethnic audience.

Like the ancient performers of the Japanese NÃ… h Theater, Korean-American Hahn-Bin takes classical European music to places it has never been before. Moving around the stage in a trance, he mirrors ancient court performances, and at other moments he is wildly animated and aggressive, Kabuki-like in his movements.

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Violinist Hahn-Bin with his piano accompanist John Blacklow on stage.
Photo: (c) 2011 Kevin Yatarola (www.kebya.com).
The musician demands to be seen as much as heard. His balloonish harem pants with floral patterns, his frequent changes of brightly-colored shirts, his black Mohawk sculpture towering in its wispiness eight inches above his shaved, whitened scalp. With his bright red lips, blue painted eyes, his accentuated cleft chin, he is the face of a clown and master of the stage.

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Photo: (c) 2011 Kevin Yatarola (www.kebya.com).
Hahn-Bin uses Western leitmotifs as well, such as Gloria Swanson-descending the stairs. At times Chaplinesque…

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Hahn-Bin performed with his own casket on stage. Photo: (c) 2011 Kevin Yatarola (www.kebya.com).
Early on in his performance he lay down upon his coffin, caressing it lovingly, his seductive eyes and dramatic body movement challenging the audience. He is yin and yang, male and female, with his masculine movements covered in a chiffon blouse with wing-like ruffles. At times displaying feminine grace — lady boy from Bangkok — at other moments menacing the audience in all his angry manliness.

I feel like I am sitting at the feet of Mozart a la the movie Amadeus, as the crowd around me eats and drinks and is simply mesmerized by Hahn-Bin’s brilliance. We are in Joe’s Pub in the Public Theater, East Village, relaxing in the home built by Joe Papp in the old Astor Library Building. A dozen white balloons float above the Baldwin grand piano on stage.

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“Am I a manic depressive or hoarder of sadness?,” Hahn-Bin asks.
Photo: (c) 2011 Kevin Yatarola (www.kebya.com).
Sipping a glass of red wine on stage, reclining, Hahn-Bin says, “Thank you for joining me at my dinner table tonight. It’s been so lonely without you here.” And then, “As you can see, I’ve changed.” He asks, “Am I a manic depressive or hoarder of sadness?” “Lots of sadnesses,” he adds. If you can imagine on of the world’s best performers coupled with one of the world’s best musicians, trained by Itzhak Perlman himself. “The ghost of your love is at my dinner table.”

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Photo: (c) 2011 Kevin Yatarola (www.kebya.com).
A dozen red balloons float above his table. As he wanders the stage with them, in his red tunic, I remembered the other boy wandering Paris with his red balloon. It was the first time I had witnessed a violinist playing so energetically while holding a dozen helium balloons and his bow in the same hand.

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“Lots of sadnesses,” Hahn-Bin adds. Photo: (c) 2011 Kevin Yatarola (www.kebya.com).
Alternating between Flight of the Bumblebee and Somewhere Over the Rainbow, broken strings flying as in his debut two years ago at Carnegie Hall that I covered, the musician has clearly carved his own path to fame, combining fashion, movement, acting and raw musical genius. I thought I heard part of Young Frankenstein‘s “Transylvanian Lullaby” in his performance.

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Hahn-Bin’s face is often self-absorbed. Photo: (c) 2011 Kevin Yatarola (www.kebya.com).
His eyes wide open in amazement and challenge, his standard deer-in-the-headlight look. Standing on the piano, reaching new heights, holding his magic violin up to the Heavens in supplication. Later, he releases the red balloons – and soon after cut the white ones free – to ascend to the Heavens as had his earlier supplications. His face often self-absorbed, cherubic, orgasmic.

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Often trance-like, Hahn-Bin combines classical music with the Avant Garde.
Photo: (c) 2011 Kevin Yatarola (www.kebya.com).
At times, he appeared the fiddler, with disco lights as he stomped his feet, bringing classical music to an urban audience far away from Carnegie Hall. I wondered, How many other violinists have made the violin so cool?

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Hahn-Bin makes his own grave and lies in it. Photo: (c) 2011 Kevin Yatarola (www.kebya.com).
Laying down in his large coffin that graced the stage, he continued to play to great applause as his assistant, his foil, The Spirit Caller Peter Samelson — an older gentleman in tuxedo — closed the lid on his life. He emerges from the coffin, having changed his outfit into a bright yellow shirt, to play Over the Rainbow signifying his resurrection.

Picking up the single red rose from his cafè table, Hahn-Bin ate the flower and then spat it out across the stage. Finally collapsing on the stage, resting his arms and head on his coffin.

See Hahn-Bin’s performance at Joe’s Pub on YouTube

See Stories by Jim Luce on:

Art | Film | Korean-Americans | Music | New York

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Originally published in The Huffington Post, December 13, 2011.

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About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

View all posts by Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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