Bach and the Battle of the Red Cliffs: the KCC’s 5th birthday concert at the Cadogan Hall

by Philip Gowman on 15 February, 2013

in Concert reviews | Event reports and reviews | Korean traditional music | Pansori | Western classical music

It is difficult to know what to make of a programme which was so obviously in two parts, and potentially likely to appeal to two completely different audiences. There will have been many who, in advance of the KCCUK’s fifth birthday concert, would have thought: “maybe I’ll just turn up for the second half”, or “I’ll leave after the interval”.

L to R: Lee Jaram, Pansori Master Song Soon-seop and Park Geun-young

L to R: Lee Jaram, Pansori Master Song Soon-seop and Park Geun-young (photo KCCUK)

I have to confess, I was in the former camp, because while there are plenty of opportunities to hear lieder, operatic arias and solo piano recitals, it’s not every day of the week that you get the opportunity to see a living human treasure perform pansori, one of the first of Korea’s traditional art forms to have been listed at UNESCO.

As it happens though, Kim Sunwook’s magical performance of Bach’s Partita No 1, which launched the first half, was worth the journey to Sloane Square on its own. Every note of it will have been familiar to people who have taken their Associated Board piano exams, but the enjoyment was enhanced by the appreciation of how sensitively the familiar bars were being played.

Kim Sunwook (piano) with Park Ji-min (tenor)

Kim Sunwook (piano) with Park Ji-min (tenor) (photo KCCUK)

Often the best soloists do not make the best accompanists, but Kim was also in his element accompanying the light tenor voice of Park Ji-min. Even in the most unrewarding works pianistically speaking – reductions of an orchestral score – Kim showed himself a sensitive accompanist. Park communicated well with the audience, his voice particularly well suited to the lieder. But the audience seemed to enjoy most the schmaltzy Lehar, which could have come straight from a Rogers & Hammerstein musical, which took us to the interval.

The second half presented to us bleeding chunks from the Battle of the Red Cliffs (Jeokbyeokga / 적벽가), one of the five sagas from Korea’s traditional pansori canon. It is sometimes thought that pansori is a difficult art form to communicate to non-Korean speakers – with a solo vocal which is part sung, part spoken and accompanied only by drum.

Lee Jaram with Park Geun-young

Lee Jaram with Park Geun-young (drum) (photo KCCUK)

In Korea, in front of a knowledgeable audience (which is now a rarity), the performers are frequently encouraged by chuimsae (추임새) such as 얼씨구. Lee Jaram, who gave us the first extended excerpt, tried to encourage the Cadogan Hall audience to intervene in this way to no avail. This is England, where we don’t do that sort of thing. So this left the drummer to provide the verbal encouragements, which he did atmospherically, both for Lee and for pansori master Song Soon-seop who performed the second excerpt with a vigour and energy which belied his 85 years.

Pansori master Song Soon-seop

Pansori master Song Soon-seop (photo KCCUK)

If the audience was silent, it was nevertheless wrapt. I turned in my seat to look at how people were reacting to this alien art form. Korean and Westerner alike were enthralled, and most had smiles on their faces. Even if you couldn’t understand what was being sung (and this probably included some of the Koreans in the audience) or couldn’t be bothered to follow the story in the easy-to-read surtitles, you could tell that something entertaining and engaging was being narrated. The tale unfolded Homeric fashion, with action interspersed with dialogue and entertaining side-stories, showing that really there is nothing new under the sun in terms of narrative. But this style of storytelling, unfamiliar to British audiences, could nevertheless do with more exposure. The length of a traditional pansori narration can be up to a day, and while a modern audience possibly can’t sustain interest for that long, with performers such as these everyone in the Cadogan Hall seemed to be left wanting more than the brief extracts we were given. More please.

The KCCUK’s fifth birthday concert at the Cadogan Hall was on Saturday 26 January 2013. Programme details can be found here.

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