The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra: Concert Review
Wu Wei, Chinese Sheng and Myung Whun Chung, conductor
Works by Ravel, Unsuk Chin, and Tchaikovsky - Orpheum, April 15, 2012
The three buses bearing the proud logo of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra were pulled up by the stage door of the Orpheum Theater. The day many of us were waiting for had finally arrived: the orchestra was here and ready to play! They and celebrated maestro Myung Whun Chung did not disappoint, giving a rich and memorable concert experience to a very enthusiastic following.
The opening suite from Ravel’s Ma Mere l’Oye immediately showed just how far the Seoul Philharmonic has progressed under Maestro Chung in a very few years. The orchestra showed remarkable refinement and control, traversing Ravel’s little pieces with a quiet, sculpted beauty. The distilled concentration of the soft strings and the serene, easeful flow of the woodwind playing took us naturally to the work’s tender ‘enchanted garden’ at the end.
Unsuk Chin’s ‘Su’ for Chinese Sheng and Orchestra gave us a fascinating composition by the orchestra’s composer-in-residence in which the sound of the four thousand year-old Chinese ‘sheng’ is used in the context of modern experimental music. The work is sometimes haunting and primeval in feel, sometimes rhythmically barbaric (like Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’), and sometimes there is just ‘quiet’ and almost nothing happens. In the hands of the master sheng player, Wu Wei, the work certainly was engaging. The number of different sounds that he produced with this instrument was astonishing, ranging from more standard bagpipe/ pipe organ presentations, to bird calls and shrieks, to other sounds that I can hardly describe, some achieved while seemingly playing the instrument upside down and dancing alongside. At the end, the composer came on stage to celebrate this Vancouver premiere and Wu Wei returned for an absolutely stunning encore based upon a traditional Chinese folk melody.
In the closing Tchaikovsky ‘Pathetique’ Symphony, we saw how exact and powerful a response the orchestra has when playing full out. Maestro Chung built the work’s opening movement with intelligence and power, dramatically contrasting its slow brooding sections with its more explosive and frenetic ones. The orchestra’s response was so clean and strong overall; the brass crisp and exact, the strings incisive and concentrated. I thought the playing here was comparable to the best. The standards of execution were hardly less distinguished in what followed, though the middle two movements featured playing that emphasized the energy in the work more than its underlying struggle and sadness. The searing string proclamations at the beginning of the finale however set the stage for a very passionate and gripping journey to the work’s quiet end.
Two encores, a most sensitive Rachmaninoff ‘Vocalise’ and a bracing Brahms Hungarian Dance, set the seal on what was a wonderful and memorable concert for everyone present. Of great joy to the Korean community in particular, its spirit reached out to all.
© Geoffrey Newman 2012