Sejong: what live music is all about

Sejong fiddlers

Sejong: Three Moments in Time – Cadogan Hall, Sunday 10 June

Go along to a standard orchestral concert, and what do you see? Ranks of musicians sitting inertly and gazing intently at their music stands. The baton is maybe a flash of white just visible in the corner of their eye, but from the audience’s perspective the orchestra is stolidly half a beat behind the conductor, and whatever the maestro does, the musicians play the symphony precisely the same way they’ve always played it.

Going to see Sejong, there’s a refreshing difference. First, there’s no conductor. Second, apart from the cellists, all the players are standing, even the bassist. Immediately, there’s a sense of energy on the stage even before the music starts. And as the horsehair hits the strings there’s a tangible level of communication between the players. They breathe together, they move together. Eye meets eye, and there’s a smile and sense of enjoyment as the music emerges from their shared collaboration.

Sejong is a group of around 15 players (4:3:3:3:1 for the Tchaikovsky Serenade, but with an additional fiddler for the concerti in the first half) — a number which is just about small enough to retain the intimacy of a chamber ensemble, but with individual players as accomplished as the Sejong soloists it’s a number which can produce a sound big enough to fool you that you’re listening to a full orchestral string section.

Reviews of Sejong’s performances have commented on their “precision” and “pin-point accuracy”, and while I can confirm that their ensemble is impeccable even in the most demanding music, the accolade suggests a metronomic quality to the playing, which is far from the case. Accelerandos and ritenutos are coordinated seamlessly without anyone obviously leading the pack, and rubatos by the soloist are supported by the tutti strings as a recitalist is supported by a sensitive accompanist on the keyboard.

Sejong’s publicity material describes them as a group of soloists, and there are certainly no passengers in the group. And in the first half of the concert they triumphantly lived up to the claim. In the Piazzolla four different fiddlers stepped forward in turn to take the limelight, one for each season, while a fifth took centre stage for the Sukhi Kang piece. Each violinist showed the level of virtuosity and musicianship one expects in a top-flight international soloist. And one of the seasons also featured demanding solos from the lead cellist.

As for the music, the Piazzolla is a bon-bon to bring a smile to the face. If there was one criticism of the work itself, Piazzolla’s music is irrepressibly sunny, and while Winter started off with the dark tones of the lower strings it never felt much chillier than 60 degrees1. Maybe Buenos Aires doesn’t have those famous Four Distinct Seasons. Who cares? This is the sort of music you could listen to all day. The arranger certainly had fun with the work, with quotes from Vivaldi interwoven into the fabric of the music, and one of the bewildering array of things which held the attention was trying to work out how the percussive effects were produced. (The heel of the bow scraping the wrong side of the bridge produces a convincing substitute for that rattling sound so familiar in Piazzolla’s original ensemble).

Sukhi Kang with Sejong

The Sukhi Kang work is one that will repay further listening. With many contemporary works I’m afraid I feel that one hearing is enough. With the Kang I’d like to have another go. The programme notes were helpful, but given that the composer was present at the Cadogan Hall it would have been good, language permitting, to have had a pre-concert talk about the work. The work was certainly demanding on soloist and orchestra alike, but Sejong — for whom the work was written — had the music in its bloodstream, and the precision and ensemble was immaculate. As with the Piazzolla, there were some unusual sounds which were conjured out of the orchestra, with some double-stopped cello harmonics in the third movement (“Summer is coming”) making a sound like Mozart’s glass harmonica or musical clock. It was this work, with its complex rhythmic patterns, which made one marvel that the band could accomplish so much without a conductor keeping things together.

Finally, Sejong’s performance of the Tchaikovsky serenade succeeded in the often mutually exclusive achievements of revealing inner detail in the work while more than retaining the overall emotion of the piece. The playing was nimble yet passionate – phrases tossed with humour between the violin parts; pizzicatos were precise, and the whole piece had a sense of energy and expressiveness which made one’s favourite recordings seem dull by comparison.

Sejong is an international ensemble based in New York, but has strong Korean connections, including Hyo Kang, its artistic director. The evening was presented by Shinhan Bank and the Great Mountains Music Festival, where Sejong are resident artists. The festival is held in PyeongChang, Kangwon Province – candidate city for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. We hope the 4 July vote of the International Olympic Committee in Guatemala gives added promince to the city and its festival.

Sejong take the applause

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