Review: RPO Korea Fantasy, 1 May 2006

Ahn Eak-tai
Ahn Eak-tae, (photo: Chosun Ilbo)
This year we celebrate the 250th birthday of Mozart, the 100th of Shostakovich, and less known, the 100th of Ahn Eak-tae (right, picture from the Chosun Ilbo), Korea’s best-known 20th century composer in the Western classical tradition. Probably his most famous work is the Korea Fantasy, a 25-30 minute work for chorus and orchestra, from which, I am told, the South Korean National Anthem is taken. It can’t be in the standard repertoire of the RPO, and for the first couple of minutes they seemed uncertain of where they were headed. After a while though they settled down. The music itself is tough on first hearing. It inhabits the same sort of soundworld as Shostakovich and Prokofiev, but while tonal its harmonic language is unfamiliar. It would have helped to have been provided with program notes to give some background to the music, even its date of composition. I suspect that the 20-minute orchestral introduction was programmatic in nature — lots of storms, maybe battle scenes (bugle calls were in evidence) with more contemplative passages in between. I’m guessing it represented Korea’s turbulent history. It was almost a relief when the 90-strong choir came in, with a triumphant chorus.

Lee Soo Young
Lee Soo Young
There followed a performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto with pianist Richard Joo Hyung-ki. It was a characterful performance, with Joo wanting to stamp his personality on the piece — perhaps too soon, with rubato introduced almost immediately the piano entered. He was at his best in the slow movement, with a magical pianissimo tone (unfortunately let down by some sour tuning in the woodwind section). In the outer movements his fast passages were very well articulated and rhythms well-sprung — though sometimes at the expense of disrupting the pulse, as at the top of the opening flourish in the last movement theme. The Beethoven formed a useful bridge between the somewhat uncompromising Ahn piece and what was to follow.

The second half started with Lee Soo Young. It was great to hear her familiar songs with full orchestral backing. But I’m sorry to have to report that for the first two numbers, Grace and 시린 from her 7th album (though the programme didn’t tell you that), Lee was definitely under the note. By the time she had warmed up, for her third and unfortunately final song, she was up to pitch. It was the big number (휠릴리) from her sixth album and I was grinning like an idiot throughout it. Wonderful stuff. But it seems criminal to fly Lee over from Seoul and only let her sing three numbers.

Kim Young Im
Kim Young Im
The surprise success of the evening was a set of Korean traditional songs with full orchestral backing (plus drum kit and electric bass). The set opened with an orchestral Arirang, which was warmly received. As the audience applauded, the horn section high-tailed it to the pub stage-right, in the process practically knocking over Korea’s Intangible Cultural Asset No 57, Kim Young-im, as she made her stately way on stage. The proposition I found slightly incongruous — an orchestral backing which sounded as if it could be a film score by Lalo Schifrin or John Barry, with traditional vocals used to a much sparser accompaniment. But it worked splendidly. I was fortunate to be sitting in between 25% of the native English speakers of the audience, and on the other side of each of them were their Korean other halves. I was thus able to get some translation of what Kim was saying: she?s more used to singing these songs unaccompanied, but she complemented the orchestra on their fine sense of chungchungmori rhythm. She worked the audience well, and we were all rehearsed to sing “Oiyagiya” at appropriate moments in one of the songs. The audience loved it, as did I, and the evening ended far too soon.

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