Battle of the Divas: Shining K-Classics at the Festival Hall

Maestro Seigerstam eased himself onto the platform looking like a cross between Brahms and a benign troll, long white beard resting on a generous stomach, long white hair reaching down the back of his tailcoat. With a waggle of his baton, the woodwind started playing Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Overture and the Shining K-Classics concert had begun. It was a decidedly north European start to the culmination of the All Eyes on Korea musical events on the South Bank, but at least it featured the Philharmonia Orchestra, whose composer-in-residence is the Korean star composer Unsuk Chin.

Sarah Chang (left) and Sumi Jo
Sarah Chang (left) and Sumi Jo after the concert (photo: Yonhap / Chosun Ilbo)

The Tchaikovsky felt a little like a warm-up, with the orchestra and conductor not yet gelling. The Korean interest started for real with the entrance of Sarah Chang to play, sadly, only the last movement of Bruch’s first concerto. Trussed in a salmon pink figure-hugging dress which made her look a little like a mermaid, her playing was sprightly. Indeed, she seemed to be straining at the leash, pulling against the more measured pace being set by the orchestra. But she was clearly enjoying herself, and the closer she got to the end the more her feet threatened to emerge from her skirt, almost revealing today’s choice of designer shoes (I think they matched the dress, but I only caught a glimpse). It was a shame that we were only permitted one movement, but the audience were rightly wildly enthusiastic about Chang’s sparkling performance.

The Sibelius Valse Triste showed Siegerstam and the Orchestra to be fully in sympathy, the Finnish conductor showing how he lived and breathed the music of his fellow countryman.

Next, in continuation of the sparkling theme, came Sumi Jo, in a slightly paler salmon pink creation (had their people not coordinated beforehand?), but with silver sequins and a matching bridal head-dress. Even before she opened her mouth to sing, her amazing stage presence had the audience totally under her spell. Of course, it helped that she was playing to a home crowd.

Her opening number was a duet with flute, Adolphe Adam’s variations on a tune known to English-speakers as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star1. She had performed this as an encore at her Mozart showcase in the Cadogan Hall earlier this year and it always brings the house down with her amazing vocal fireworks. The partnership with the flautist worked well particularly in the extended unaccompanied cadenza, with both musicians enjoying playing off each other. Sumi Jo was milking every opportunity to engage with the audience, and by the time the number was over it was hard to restrain them.

The final number in the first half, by the double rarity – a composer both female and Belgian2 – again showed off Sumi Jo’s high notes, and set the audience up for the interval.

Sumi Jo acknowledges the applause after her performance of Caro Nome
Sumi Jo acknowledges the applause after her performance of Caro Nome (Photo Credit: KCCUK)

The second half started with Verdi’s Force of Destiny overture. This was a sensible decision as it both set the scene for the next Sumi Jo showcase (an aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto) while giving the punters some nice tunes to listen to (including the Stella Artois commercial). Sumi Jo had done a costume change during the interval, and wafted on to the platform in a one-shouldered pale champagne outfit with plenty of flamenco flounces. The aria, Caro Nome, was well executed but was crying out to be followed by the next aria in the opera, leaving me unsatisfied. But judging by the applause which greeted this masterclass in controlled singing I think I was alone.

The disappointment of the evening was an arrangement of a version of Arirang by Ahn Junjoon. Over-elaborately orchestrated in the English Cowpat style of Delius, the Han of the original folk song was swamped in schmaltz, with the only vestige of longing, grief, remorse and all the other complex range of emotions which makes up Han being a solitary blue note towards the end of the piece.3

No chance of schmaltz in David Newman’s arrangement of music from Bernstein’s West Side Story for violin and orchestra. But the change of atmosphere we needed after Arirang was ensured by rather too much of a dramatic pause between Jo’s departure from the stage and Chang’s emergence. Was it a slip-up by the stage manager? Was it a misjudgement by Chang of the point at which a dramatic pause becomes an embarrassing delay? Was she struggling with her zip? Certainly Siegerstam wasn’t expecting the hiatus, as he turned expectantly to the stage door waiting for his soloist to appear.

Sarah Chang after playing West Side Story
Sarah Chang after playing West Side Story (Photo Credit: KCCUK)

But all was forgiven when Chang emerged to play the piece. Once again, plenty of opportunity for showing off her virtuoso technique, but little chance to see her change of shoes, which were concealed under a long, flowing blue and yellow dress. Seigerstam was beginning to enter into the spirit – and there was definitely a swing in his hips during some of Bernstein’s dance numbers such as Tonight. Unfortunately a member of the audience was also entering into the spirit with a Bernstein-inspired ring tone on a mobile phone which took rather too long to switch off.

It was time to prepare for Sumi Jo’s return to the stage for an Offenbach aria, and what better way to do so than by playing Offenbach’s most famous tune, the can-can from Orpheus in the Underworld. The audience were now seriously enjoying themselves, and started clapping in time to the big high-kicking melody from the brass section. Seigerstam turned to look at the audience, and through all his facial hair it was difficult to tell whether that look was a smile or a snarl. But if it was the latter he had forgiven the audience by the end of the piece, applauding the audience for their participation.

Sumi Jo returned to the stage, still in her stunning champagne-coloured frock, for the Song of the Dolls from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman. Jo was immediately in character as a clockwork doll which occasionally needed a winding-up from the conductor. There was plenty of humour and stage banter in a way that brought the audience into the performance.

Of course there were going to be encores. The programme notes had promised us traditional Korean songs in the plural, and so far we’d only had one.

But after the decidedly un-traditional Arirang arrangement we had another song from a rather younger tradition – the Korean mid 20th century lyric song. The encore was Longing for Mount Kumgang written by Choe Yeong-seob in 1961 with lyrics written by Han Sang-eok, a song which has earned popularity outside of Korea, having been performed by such luminaries as Mischa Maisky on cello, and by the Bolshoi Chorus. Placido Domingo has performed it on a visit to Seoul and it always goes down well with a Korean audience. In the big orchestral scoring the light, agile voice of Sumi Jo was rather swamped, but we nevertheless enjoyed it. Surprisingly, some of the Koreans in the audience (and yes, there was a sizeable Korean contingent) appeared not to know the song, bursting into applause at precisely the wrong moment.

Carlos Gardel’s Por una Cabeza – a tango for violin orchestra – was the final encore, and Sarah Chang’s third dress of the night, a rich scarlet version of her first dress of the evening which again kept her third pair of designer shoes out of public view.

If there had been any rivalry between the two Korean divas in respect of frocks, amount of stage time or any other artistic matter it did not show in the curtain calls, where each generously acknowledged the other’s stardom.

This evening was not about profound music; it was more about celebrating the enormous talents of two of Korea’s biggest classical music stars, and the KCC is to be congratulated in negotiating the minefield of putting on their first classical concert in London’s premier venue for orchestral music. I suspect that putting the evening together was a rollercoaster ride, but one that was well worth the efforts.

“Shining K-Classics” was at the Royal Festival Hall on 31 July 2012. SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

  1. The French title is Ah! vous dirai-je, maman from the 1849 comic opera Le Toreador []
  2. Eva Dell’Acqua’s 1893 orchestral song “Villanelle” []
  3. For a much sparser but agonisingly beautiful arrangement of a Kangwondo Arirang check out Nah Youn-sun with Ulf Wakenius on her album Voyage. []

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