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English church, Korean choir, great concert

Suwon Civic Chorale in Kingston Parish Church, directed by Min In-Gi
Suwon Civic Chorale in Kingston Parish Church, directed by Min In-Gi

What is aural image is conjured up when you hear of a Civic Chorale? Perhaps a worthy amateur choral society, used to performing madrigals with rather too many singers and too much vibrato, plodding through an annual Messiah at Easter time? Think again when it comes to the Suwon Civic Chorale. This forty-strong choir from the home of one of Korea’s world heritage sites – the Hwaseong Fortress – can justifiably call themselves world class.

The sound they produce is totally familiar to those who move in the circles of good Western European choirs. Well-blended, warm-sounding, neither too full of vibrato nor with the acid tone of some of the early music specialists. The sopranos and altos, when singing in unison, produce a rich sound, while the men produce a relatively light sound – far from the ponderousness of a Slavonic choir – but nevertheless balanced well with the top lines.

The choir performs their music from memory, allowing greater precision and responsiveness to the conductor, while allowing the director to be more relaxed and less demonstrative than is necessary when the singers have their heads buried in their copies. This is a choir who know their repertoire and are immersed in the style, and who put the audience immediately at ease with their sound world and professionalism.

Anyone who might have been slightly nervous at the Korean items in the programme need not have been. The concert started with different takes on the most popular Korean folk song, Arirang. The difficulty with Arirang is that there are so many versions of it, but in this concert we stuck with the two most familiar ones: the version which was reinterpreted by the Yoon Band in Trafalgar Square earlier this year, and the version which will be familiar to viewers of Im Kwon Taek’s Sopyonje. The first item of the evening, in fact, was a simple statement of each version, and then a last verse which superimposed the two melodies, in a style very familiar to any English choral singer. We then had an exploration of each version, and those familiar with the sound world of Howells or the Tippett negro spirituals will have been very comfortable.

Acknowledging the English audience, the choir then gave us some Elgar and Finzi (the latter, depending on your viewpoint, was either commendably lacking in self-indulgence or a touch on the brisk side) before moving on to some unfamiliar names while still not straying too far from what a middle-of-the-road audience can tolerate. Perhaps the O magnum mysterium was a bit too gorgeous at times, but the Rytmus lightened the mood while the Ubi Caritas tantalised us with snatches of the original plainchant embedded in the melody.

We ended the formal part of the programme with settings of the Blue Bird. Not Charles Villiers Stanford, but a song which a member of the audience told me is inextricably linked with the Donghak rebellion of 1895. The final interpretation called for some virtuoso solos from two sopranos, an alto and tenor, superbly in control as they mimicked various bird calls.

The concert ended too soon, but we were given a couple of encores: a folk song, 가고파, expressing a yearning for home, which immediately brought the Londonderry Air to mind. Appropriately enough, Danny Boy rounded off the evening.

Do go and hear the Suwon Civic Chorale if you get the chance. The audience last night, which included the Kingston mayoralty, certainly gave them a deservedly warm reception. Their publicity material describes them as world class, and they do not disappoint.

Suwon Civic Chorale - photo call with the mayors
Suwon Civic Chorale - photo call with the mayors

For the sticklers, the programme was as follows:

Two Choral Variations on Arirang:
Theme and Intro (Chang-joon Young)
Var (I) – Arirang (Sung-hyun Yoon)
Var (II) – Jindo Arirang (Jae-sung Ahn)

English Choral Music
O Happy Eyes (Edward Elgar)
My Spirit Sang All Day (Gerald Finzi)

New Cathedral Classics
O Magnum Mysterium (N White)
Rytmus (I Hrusovsky)
Caritas et Amor (R Stroope)

Korean Traditional Choral Music on a theme Blue Bird
Blue Bird (I) (Jung-sun Lee)
Blue Bird (II) (Arr Moon-seung Lee)
Sae Taryung (The Bird Song) (Gyun-yong Lee)


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