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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 20, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 16
Seoul Philharmonic dazzles
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Seoul Philharmonic dazzles

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
April 16
Benaroya Hall


If the largely Korean audience was looking for a source of national pride, the Seoul Philharmonic certainly delivered to a bursting reception Monday evening. Indeed, this orchestra left nothing to be desired. It has many things going for it. Excellent players, largely Asian; apparently excellent financial backing (Hyundai sponsored this tour.); and most of all one of the world's great conductors, Myung-Whun Chung. The financial backing showed not only in the excellence of the musicians but also in their number: there were easily 100 instrumentalists on stage, with no less than 10 double-bass players.

The program was beautifully designed, focusing on works that evoke atmospheric conditions. The least atmospheric, but nonetheless evocative, of these was Ravel's 'Ma Mère l'Oye' ('Mother Goose') Suite. Here the playing was so exquisite that this gentle work produced a joy I have never found in it before. Chung conducted with small gestures but great effect, producing sublime pianissimo's and utter clarity throughout.

To say that the next work was a novelty would be understatement. '`u, Concerto for Chinese Sheng' by Unsuk Chin, employed a 4,000-year-old instrument that was a kind of cross between a harmonica (of which it is a forerunner) and a tiny pipe organ. It has a tight bundle of little, vertical pipes (Imagine a squished picture of Disney's Magic Kingdom emblem.) blown through a 10-inch silver tube. Capable of a surprising dynamic range, it could be heard quite well even when cutting through moderately heavy orchestration. Usually, however, the very large orchestra (including 37 different percussion instruments) played with transparent textures, often whispering atmospheric effects. The sheng played both single notes and chords, or tonal clusters of notes.

Wu Wei was the soloist. He began very softly, with little bodily movement. As the music became more complex, however, he began a kind of exotic dance, shifting his weight from foot to foot, eventually adding percussive notes with his heels. The quality of sound ranged from steady to emphatic, rapidly pulsating notes that were a kind of vibrato without varying pitch. This last effect lent tremendous intensity, especially combined with Wei's energetic dance.

The music itself was always interesting, often ethereal. The orchestra executed the complex rhythms with consummate skill. Loud, punctuating crashes using varied percussion often elevated the landscape. Ms. Chin's orchestral imagination seemed limitless, and she received a big ovation at the end. Soloist Wei then played a fascinating encore: his own improvisation on 'Dragon Song' - a traditional Chinese melody. It gave us a better chance to hear the instrument and its impressive capabilities. The emphatic pulses he often added were somewhat like that of an accordion. There were no keys; he played by breath control and digital manipulation of holes at the base of the pipes. He seemed to be using 'circular breathing' whereby one takes in air through the nose, all the while expelling air through the mouth.

The second half included two of the 20th century greats: Debussy's 'La Mer' and Stravinsky's 'Firebird Suite' (1919 version). So striking were the atmospheric clarity and sensuous sweep of the Debussy that I can say I have never heard it better. The Stravinsky was perhaps no less well played, but it seemed less special, perhaps because I am spoiled by the legendary recording by Ernest Ansermet.

Myung-Whun Chung spoke to us about how special it was for him to return to Seattle for the first time in 40 years. He explained he had left S. Korea in his pre-teens and attended the Lakeside School. His brother was in fact a classmate of someone named Bill Gates! Chung spoke sincerely of Seattle's beauty and his joy at returning. He then led his orchestra in two encores: Rachmaninov's 'Vocalise' and Brahms' 'Hungarian Dance No. 5.'

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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