Pianist Enlists Top Composers in Salute to America

Min Kwon's pandemic-inspired project showcases 70 diverse interpretations of "America the Beautiful."

Min Kwon

Pianist Min Kwon. Courtesy of Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

At the height of the pandemic last year, Bedminster pianist Min Kwon was struggling to remember why making music was important. Her husband, Leonard Lee, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital chairman of surgery, was in a Covid-19 battle zone.

“I would see him coming home so upset because all these people were on ventilators and dying around him,” she says. “It made me feel useless. I was thinking, There’s got to be something I can do, too.” 

There was. Last year, Kwon, a piano professor at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts, began piecing together what would become “America/Beautiful,” a project showcasing 70 diverse interpretations of  “America the Beautiful.” The result premieres July 4 via livestream (available with daily renditions through July 7). It ends with live events July 8–9 at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The goal is to reflect on contemporary America, the country Kwon adopted as a child more than 30 years ago, when her parents moved to Closter from Korea.

“With all the things we were seeing on TV during Covid—people so divided, and America quite literally dying—I wanted to give voice to the feelings we were all going through.” 

Fellow composers clearly liked the idea. By spring, she had enlisted Pulitzer Prize winners, including Melinda Wagner, and MacArthur geniuses like Vijay Iyer to contribute their variations. 

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Drew University professor of music Trevor Weston and Princeton’s Juri Seo are among several Jersey composers on the roster. Maybe best representing the fruited plains of New Jersey, though, is the song itself. “America the Beautiful” was composed in 1882 by organist and choirmaster Samuel A. Ward at Newark’s Grace Episcopal Church, where some of the filming for the livestream took place. 

“I reached out to Grace Church when I found out this man Sam Ward was the composer,” Kwon says. “It really came full circle.”

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