Friday 29 August 2014

Introducing the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myung-Whun Chung
Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myung-Whun Chung
On Wednesday 27 August 2014, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra made its BBC Proms debut at the Royal Albert Hall under the orchestra's musical director Myung-Whun Chung in a programme which included music by Debussy and Tchaikovsky, plus Korean composer Unsuk Chin's Su for sheng and orchestra, a remarkable concerto for the sheng, an ancient oriental instrument which is played by Wu Wei. The morning of the concert there was a press conference, with Myung-Whun Chung, Unsuk Chin and Wu Wei to introduce the orchestra and the programme, as well as confirming the remarkable achievement that the appearance at the BBC Proms confirms.

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in its present form is the product of an idea. Ten years ago the then Mayor of Seoul persuaded Myung-Whun Chung to come back to Korea and create a world class orchestra from the existing regional orchestra (in fact Chung played a solo with the orchestra when he was 7!). Though born in Korea and held in high esteem in the country, Chung has spent most of his life abroad. Chung talked about how he was born during the last year of the Korean war, but that when he went to the USA the only thing people knew about Korea was that there had been a war. You sense that, for Chung, the orchestra is a way of presenting modern Korea to the world and he is concerned that the musicians reflect the best in Korea.

But making an orchestra in Korea is tricky, Koreans are all individualists and when Chung started all the good players wanted solo careers. But Chung has brought in a few foreign players (15% of the orchestra is non-Korean), as exemplars and the steady work that they have all been doing is shown by the remarkable recent performances including their Proms appearance.

Central the the orchestra's recent development has been their relationship with the Korean composer, Unsuk Chin. She has been composer in residence since 2006 and this relationship involves Chin not only writing for the orchestra but curating a  contemporary music series. The Ars Nova series has the orchestra giving two orchestral concerts and two chamber ensemble concerts annually, as well as masterclasses with young composers. They have been commissioning young composers and started to commission major international composers such as Peter Otvos, and Tristan Murail.

Wu Wei playing the Sheng
Wu Wei playing the Sheng
at the press conference
Suk's concerto for sheng was written in 2009. Though a traditional instrument, the sheng plays a relatively minor role but Chin talked about how she heard the sound of it as a child and thought it amazing. She was only able to write for the instrument when she met a player, meeting Wu Wei in Berlin five years ago (where he was playing at a wedding).

Wu Wei introduced the sheng which is a curious bundle of bamboo pipes, with heavy keys and a very curious mouthpiece. The instrument is around 3000 years old, and common to China, Korea and Japan and Wu Wei welcomed the opportunity to bring this instrument to the international stage. The fingering system is complex, he joked that it takes more time to learn than analysing a Stockhausen piece.

Chin's writing for the instrument in the concerto is very idiomatic, but stretches technique to its limits. And to accompany the instrument she has turned the orchestra into a giant sheng. When playing the sheng, breathing is very important, and part of the concept for the concerto is that soloist and orchestra breathe together.

Wu Wei commented that Chinese traditional music is often perceived as monophonic, but that the sheng shows that it can be polyphonic too and to conclude he played a piece from the Tang dynasty, evocative and curiously haunting.

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra's debut at the Proms, performing a piece by Korea's finest composer and using a traditional instrument is an important milestone in the orchestra's history. Orchestras are relatively new in Korea and Chung joked early in the press conference that 'All Koreans think they should be the conductor'. This individualism is something that he has harnessed, and the orchestra aims to break the Western perception of classical music from the East that everything is copied and worked to death. Chung insists on good discipline, but the performers' goal is to be free an expressive.

Musicians of the Chung and Chin's generations inevitably trained abroad, and frequently still live abroad. Talk at the press conference was of returning to Korea. But there is now a generation of musicians who are Korean born and Korean trained. The pianist Sunwook Kim (with whom the orchestra recorded Chin's Piano Concerto - see my review) is entirely Korean trained. You sense that Western classical music in Korea is entering a new and interesting phase.

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