Music

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In a graceful song cycle, Kim distilled reaction to atomic war

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 1996

On April 11, Music for Peace, under the auspices of Massachusetts Peace Action, presents “Vocal Chamber Music in Times of War and Peace,” a program curated by and featuring mezzo-soprano D’Anna Fortunato. At its center is the distilled eloquence of Korean-American composer and one-time Cambridge resident Earl Kim (1920-98) — his song cycle “Now and Then” (1982), which refracts, in characteristically understated fashion, a wartime cataclysm: the atomic bombing of the Japanese city of Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.

A broken fuel pump and a hole in the clouds doomed Nagasaki. The B-29 “Bockscar” spent an hour fruitlessly circling the city of Kokura — the mission’s primary target — which was obscured by clouds and smoke. With fuel dwindling, the crew flew to Nagasaki, where the cloud cover opened long enough to drop a plutonium-based “Fat Man” weapon with a yield equivalent to some 21,000 tons of conventional explosives. At least 20,000 people were killed instantly; estimates of final casualties range as high as 80,000. Within a week, Japan surrendered.

At the time, Kim was an intelligence officer in the US Army Air Forces. On Aug. 10, he flew over the rubble of Nagasaki, surveying the scene. It was more than three decades before he responded to the experience, and the response was oblique, setting texts by Anton Chekhov, William Butler Yeats, and a writer with whom Kim felt special affinity, Samuel Beckett.

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The music seems both gracefully and fiercely, precisely honed. “Although each of the songs was conceived in a day,” Kim noted, “the years that intervened between their completion and Nagasaki seemed to have been necessary before they could be set down.”

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Around the same time he composed “Now and Then,” Kim cofounded Musicians Against Nuclear Arms, and served as the organization’s president for several years. MANA sponsored concerts raising money for disarmament efforts; “Now and Then” was performed as part of a 1982 concert that sold out Symphony Hall (and drew picketers from the Harvard Conservative Club).

MANA would go on to mount some particularly grand affairs: a star-studded 1983 gala at New York City’s Avery Fisher Hall, a legendary 1984 performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in Washington’s National Cathedral, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. “Now and Then,” by contrast, eschews grandness: it is exacting, pithy, crystalline. Kim was a composer who channeled emotion into focus and refinement; that memory of Nagasaki produced one of his most focused and refined works.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.