Soloists, Vancouver Zion Mission Choir/ Dr. Stephanie Chung; VSO/ Gordon Gerrard, Orpheum, February 9, 2014


The title fully suggests the theme of this special concert; a true extravaganza celebrating Korean culture and the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Canada and Korea.  Many artists were involved, the anchor being the large Vancouver Zion Mission Choir – visually imposing on stage -- and the most illustrious performer, icon violinist Sarah Chang.


After a Verdi overture, the first main work was Grace Jong Eun Lee’s intriguing ‘Song of Love for Kayagum (Korean zither) and Orchestra’. This composition might have taken us to a very special world of Korean expression, much like the ancient ‘sheng’ has in the recent compositions of Unsuk Chin.  However, I think it fell slightly short of this.  While it was fascinating to watch the composer play, the kayagum seemed to take second place to its fairly lightweight film music accompaniment.  The instrument’s unique, raw timbre often just reinforced the orchestral line (like a harpsichord continuo might) without contributing enough solo flourishes to make the work really distinctive.  Soprano Youngmi Kim followed, and brought substantial feeling to a Verdi aria and a short piece by composer Young Jo Lee, finding its mystery.  The female contingent of the Zion Mission Choir finished the first half with Korean Folk Songs, the most famous being ‘Long for Mountain Gum-Kang’.  The ensemble gave devoted, heartfelt performances of these unison pieces, producing a strong and well integrated tonal output and responding well to the discipline of their conductor.  It intrigued me just how close in patriotic feeling and style these Korean songs were to the Russian ones that Prokofiev used in his oratorio ‘Alexander Nevsky’.

Tension was moved up a notch when superstar violinist Sarah Chang came on stage in the second half to play Max Bruch’s famous Violin Concerto No. 1.  This was indeed a very passionate, almost wild performance, pushing the lines of the work forward with great power, the last movement volcanically propelled from beginning to end.  But this was a performance for the moment, not one that the violinist would take to the recording studio.  It was simply too unsettled and demonstrative overall.

Jun-Hee Lim’s ‘Song of Arirang’ was the massive closing work for soloists, full chorus and orchestra, making me think how one might perform other big works, such as Mahler’s ‘Symphony of a Thousand’, on the Orpheum stage.  Here the poor xylophone had to be put almost behind the chorus seating to fit it in.  This simple, engaging song is very close to Korean hearts and it was given strong advocacy in the set of variations heard here.  Sometimes I did think that the scale was too grand, and the chorus and orchestra too highly projected, to capture the true spirit of this affecting tune.  A smaller scale might also have permitted the soloist’s contributions to register better and allow some of the choral singing to be softer, more flexible in phrase, and more exact.  But one cannot doubt the overall commitment of the performers, and with creditable execution, the result was quite spectacular in its own way.

One can only admire the effort made to get all the performers and orchestra on the same page for this occasion and this concert certainly added up to fulfilling entertainment for everyone.  I do not think that it was a particularly magical musical experience, largely because it did not offer enough contrast with all the ‘up front’ and highly-projected flourish of many pieces. The softer, restrained, and more contemplative aspects of the Korean make-up were largely absent.   But I suppose that is what ceremonial concerts are all about.


© Geoffrey Newman 2014