Sunday, August 14, 2016, was the final ministry day for Woosug Kang as Director of Music at St. Philip’s In The Hills. Woosug has accepted a call from St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Our farewells to Woosug know no bounds as he embarks on the next phase of his ministry and musical career.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Woosug moved with his family to Auckland, New Zealand, when he was 14 years old. Woosug’s father, who was a church musician in Seoul and author of a book on hymnody, wanted a richer musical environment for his family. The Anglican Cathedral in Auckland was chosen as their church home. It was in that setting that Woosug began his church music upbringing, serving as organ scholar while he went to college. After university undergraduate study, Woosug attended an organ summer school in the UK and worked with several notable teachers. He then attended Yale University, and earned a Master’s degree in organ performance. Next he was accepted into the Doctoral program in organ performance at Indiana University and also worked at several churches in Indianapolis and Connecticut while pursuing that degree.
The St. Philip’s chapter of Woosug’s story began in 2011. The search committee for Director of Music thoroughly vetted 41 candidates, and ultimately invited two candidates to experience separately a very intense weekend immersion in musical leadership tasks. From the moment Woosug began to lead our choirs, the committee knew who would receive the call. Woosug arrived for service in July of 2012, and immediately set to work growing and improving the choral ministries at St. Philip’s.
During Woosug’s tenure, the choirs grew in number and expanded in ability. He revitalized the Cherub choir for our youngest choristers and added the St. Cecilia choir to provide a choral experience for children ages 4-8. The level of performance by each of the seven St. Philip’s choirs has never been higher. All choristers grew tremendously as individual musicians and as group performers within the different choral ensembles. Staff singer Mary Paul reflected, “From a musical perspective, Woosug really challenged the choir with pieces of professional-level difficulty (e.g., Poulenc’s Mass in G, Gerald Finzi’s Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice, and Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb). He brought the choirs to a new level of musicality, and demanded a higher degree of professionalism all around by emphasizing the choir’s role as liturgical leaders. He taught the choir a great deal about liturgy, even including fine-grained details about the proper protocol with respect to choir vestments.” This attention to detail made the music integrate so well into the church services.
One of Woosug’s priorities was the development of the vocal performance abilities of our youth. Perhaps the most concrete example of these gifts was his expansion of the St. Philip’s Choral Evensong service and his design of a larger role for the St. Nicholas choir members into the Canterbury Singers and Schola choirs. He also provided countless hours of individualized vocal lessons, at no charge, to each of the youth in the St. Nicholas Choir. He gave the ASMP children a structure to work in and musical guidance that broadened their exposure to music. Woosug had the kids’ attention from day one with his amazing hair. His structured rehearsal environment could be suspended to join in the fun of crazy socks, sunglasses, bow ties or just going outside to run in the rain.
Woosug’s work with children in choral instruction was noticed by many parents. Dale LaFleur said, “Woosug had high expectations, but also gave much of himself to help the youth achieve their goals. We appreciate all that he did to help our son Henry learn more about music and performance through regular services, the monthly evensongs, and the Amahl and the Night Visitors opera. The participation in the UK Residency was also very special. These experiences will be remembered for many years to come.”
“What really stands out to me is the knowledge that Woosug has imparted to the kids and the passion he has inspired in them,” said choir mom and staff singer Mary Paul. “Youth choristers who were formerly lukewarm about the choir have become passionate and committed participants. He demanded — and received — their full attention and respect, loved them, made them laugh, inspired them. That’s a fine line to walk, and Woosug not only walked it, he danced it.”
Senior St. Nicholas chorister Abby Alexander commented on Woosug’s instructional style this way: “The new music director search committee should make sure the new director maintains good discipline. We really respect that Mr. Kang made us toe the line and wouldn’t accept anything less than our best.”
“I think that the most impact on the St. Philip’s music program was Woosug’s devotion to, and focus on, the youth choral program,” said colleague Jeffrey Campbell. “The ability to lead with firm goals and direction, to challenge our young singers beyond what they thought was possible for them, and to articulate a philosophy of Episcopal church music that accepted no compromise was one to which our youth and adults responded and gave back. The UK Residency at Worcester Cathedral is a lasting testament to Woosug’s musical and spiritual direction, which these young people will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Karl Yordy, himself an Anglican chorister since age 8, also described Woosug’s focus on the future: “In addition to his great musicianship and his skills as a choral leader, Woosug had a vision — a strong sense of what he wanted the music ministry to become. A principal element of that vision was the development of the youth singers. He conceived of the Canterbury Apprentices as a means to develop further their nascent talents by integrating maturing voices into the Canterbury Choir. As full-fledged participants, the youth showed that, with Woosug’s nurturing, they were capable of meeting the challenges presented by great choral works. Their talents were on further display with the Schola Cantorum at Evensong. The culmination of their development as church musicians was the residency this past summer at Worcester Cathedral. Not only did the youth enhance the music liturgy, for which St. Philip’s is well known, but this experience of leading actual worship services in such a wonderful venue is likely to have a lasting effect in their lives.”
In addition to Woosug’s primary responsibilities as music director, he was also a fabulous concert organist. “Some St. Philipians weren’t quite prepared for the enormity of Woosug’s organ virtuosity,” Gwen Powell recalled. “Parish life was full of wonder and excitement when watching Woosug and Jeffrey work together to bring world-class quality in choral and instrumental music performance to St. Philip’s. It is also quite telling that when the University of Arizona’s Fred Fox School of Music was looking for a sabbatical interim replacement in organ, Woosug was invited to assume that temporary position. He made a fine organ professor and left a very positive impression on everyone within the School of Music, while also spreading the good news about St. Philip’s.” One of Woosug’s organ students, Kwesi Pasley, remarked that “Woosug’s greatest contribution to my playing was through his never-ending questions: ‘Why did you do that here and not there?’ or ‘How does that contribute to the overall statement of the piece?’ Those questions allowed me to think about the piece in a larger sense, and to develop my own ‘voice.’ With Woosug, I learned the importance of digesting the piece completely rather than just trying to play what was on the page. He made me a much better player.”
For all of these accomplishments to have such positive outcomes in such a short time period required very strong administrative and people-management skills. “I have seen many mid-career management professionals who haven’t learned what Woosug knows innately about management within dynamic organizations,” observed Bob Couch. As a consequence, the music ministries were fiscally sound, the music staff was always fit to available funding without compromising quality, and the entire music department constantly sought improvements. In the same vein, Woosug revitalized the Friends of Music organization at St. Philip’s and made it a more viable contributor to parish life artistically, organizationally, and financially. In addition Woosug gave the After School Music and Homework Program board and volunteers a new sense of active mission and vision for the future.
Woosug took participation in St. Philip’s strategic visioning as a primary goal. Upon hearing the vestry describe a desire for St. Philip’s to have a more recognized role within the larger Tucson community, Woosug set out to have the music programs go outside our walls and invited other Tucson musicians to come share their gifts within them. St. Philip’s choirs gave numerous concerts at other churches and holiday venues. Local instrumental musicians were given a venue for sharing their talents in concerts preceding the Choral Evensong service and during First Sunday Music services. Woosug was also very active in the Southern Arizona chapter of the American Guild of Organists. His leadership there led to a broadening of concert offerings among many of the churches in Tucson and Green Valley with fine instruments to celebrate.
In addition to his professional achievements while at St. Philip’s, many parishioners knew Woosug as a genuinely caring and compassionate person. Woosug was full of community with us. He was a frequent source of emotional and spiritual support for many St. Philippians who came in contact with him. True ministry happened for many in the St. Philip’s family as we experienced community life together. Woosug knew the importance of family relationships and set out to create them wherever he went. Woosug was always accessible and very approachable throughout his tenure at St. Philip’s. “Woosug was a very hard-working, forward-thinking planner who never settled for anything less than excellence,” observed music librarian and administrative assistant, Laura Rubbo. “While encouraging all choristers to constantly improve, Woosug remained respectful of others and inclusive. He was also goal-oriented and great at brainstorming ideas in committee settings when others were stuck.” Music librarian Julie Gibson also recently observed, “Even while knowing the challenges that awaited him in Nashville, Woosug remained constantly focused on St. Philip’s until the day he departed Tucson.”
We are all in a bittersweet place regarding Woosug’s departure from St. Philip’s. His time with us has been profoundly wonderful. Many of us realized that his musical capabilities would at some point exceed what St. Philip’s could offer him, but we are still sorry to see him go so soon. At the same time, he is going to a place where he can continue to grow and flourish, becoming an even greater musician. When the previous music director search committee was making its final deliberations, Barbara Cone commented, “Woosug Kang is on the cusp of greatness — and St. Philip’s gets to help shape that outcome.” We have experienced our part of that reality in musical and family life with Woosug and wish him the very best that life has to offer in his new church and living community. We think that St. George’s may not yet fully appreciate the exemplary talent and strong, admirable character of the person that they have just hired — but they soon will.
—Contributors: Karl Yordy, Laura Rubbo, Gwen Powell, Mary Paul, Kwesi Pasley, Dale Lafleur, Julie Gibson, Bob Couch, Jeffrey Campbell, Abby Alexander
—Photos by Herb Burton and others