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Concert review: National Orchestra of Korea gives K-Music 2013 a triumphant start

The UK debut of the National Orchestra of Korea at the Barbican on 14 June launched the 2013 K-music festival. In his interview with LKL the day before, the orchestra’s musical director Won Il had promised sounds that a British audience had never heard before. And the orchestra certainly delivered on that promise.

The 60-piece orchestra was made up of 2-stringed haegeums, doing much the same job as a violin section in a Western orchestra; geomungos and 12-stringed gayageums doing the work of violas and cellos; and the more modern 25-string gayageums acting as harps. Traditional Korean flutes, oboes and shawms and plenty of percussion completed the instrumentation, with two Western double basses filling out the bottom registers.

1 Daechwita Inverse (대취타 역) – by Won Il

On stage
The National Orchestra of Korea wait for the conductor to reappear at the start of the Arirang Fantasy

The concert launched with a farewell symphony in reverse. The stage was empty to start with, and then the percussion section walked in. Delicate bell sounds initiate the piece, but soon an explosive drum chorus takes over, as the brass players file onto the stage. Next, the opening fanfare sounded as if it was made by massed vuvuzelas with a couple of added fog-horns thrown in for good measure: a raw, piercing and massively exciting sound which took the audience by surprise. The vuvuzela sounds were produced by the shawm-like taepyeongso while the more unfocused foghorn sounds were generated by the nabal.

Daechwita is a genre of military music and used to accompany the marching of an army. It literally means “great blowing (취) and beating (타)” and this was certainly a good description of the fearsome sounds we were hearing. The rest of the instrumentalists filed on to stage for the final movement of the work, and the haegeum and gayageum sections immediately set up a relentless Stravinsky-like rhythm which built up like the sound of an infernal machine and carried the piece to its conclusion.

2 Arirang Fantasy (아리랑 환상곡) – by Choi Seong-hwan (최성환)

Han Seung-seok sings a lament at the start of the Ssitgim Gut
Han Seung-seok sings a lament at the start of the Ssitgim Gut

This piece has an interesting history: composed for a modern orchestra in 1976 by a North Korean composer, it was performed by the New York Philharmonic on their trip to Pyongyang in 2008. It has been rearranged for traditional Korean instruments by Gye Sungwon, and it really works much better in this version, with the haegeums producing a plangent sound which is out of the reach of the modern violin. But despite the traditional instruments, the orchestra managed at times to produce sonorities which were Mahlerian in scale.

3 Gongmudohaga (공무도하가) – by Kim Seong-guk (김성국)

Gongmudohaga is a Korean folk tale about a widow lamenting the loss of her husband who has drowned while crossing a river.

Water is used to express love and parting with a loved one, and also to express death. The woman in the poem lost the one she loved and sang of her sad heart while playing the konghou harp. The theme of this piece recurs in a cyclical fashion to express through music the three ideas of love, parting and death.

I did not get a chance to read the programme notes before the concert, so I did not know what to expect from this or any of the new pieces, but this work in particular bowled me over. Once again there was a wide variety of sonorities and rhythms, and the instrumentalist were sometimes required to use their voices in chants which were part ghostly, part healing. The work had me in tears with the beauty of some of its sounds – two thirds of the way through, the main melody returns played on a solo haegeum supported by a chorus of daegeums, producing a sound of excruciating poignancy.

4 Ssitgim-gut Sinawi 씻김굿

The Shaman starts the main ritual of the Ssitgim-gut
The Shaman starts the main ritual of the Ssitgim-gut

During the interval the gayageums were shunted towards the back of the stage to make room for a smaller ensemble who would perform part of a shamanistic ritual for laying to rest the spirit of someone who has recently died.

This Ssitgim-gut performance is in three parts: calling back a spirit, bringing repose to a soul, and sending a soul to the other world; and the main activities of Yeongdot-mari and Neok-alligi are staged. Yeongdot-mari is the symbolic activity of ritual cleansing while the shaman is chanting. Neok-alligi is the activity of carefully cutting paper in the shape of a human figure which symbolizes a spirit called Neok.

This paper figure is placed on the head of a family member, and the shaman tries to lift it off again using a dance tool known as a Jijeon. If the paper figure seems willing to be lifted again, it signifies that the deceased’s soul is ready to be parted from his living relatives and move on to the next world.

The shaman chants over the bereaved relatives in the Ssitgim-gut
The shaman chants over the bereaved relatives in the Ssitgim-gut

Before the (female) shaman started the main ritual, a brief lament was sung by Han Seung-seok, accompanied only by gong and brass singing-bowl. Some of Han’s other performances can be found on YouTube and are well worth a listen.

The sinawi music that accompanied the gut was the only traditional music in the Barbican concert – all the other works had contemporary composers or arrangers.

5 Nirvana (열반) – by Kim Dae-seong (김대성)

Nirvana was the most visually entertaining of the orchestral works because of the range of percussion effects. At one point the gayageum players were called on to swing rattles, the bass drum player bounced a football off his instrument, and the daegeum section inflated then burst some party balloons.

The daegeum section blows into something different while the gayageum players swing rattles

According to the programme notes, this piece was inspired by studying Buddhist music and the folk songs of northwestern Korea, as well as melodies from Japanese court music. “The rhythmic cycles of shamanistic music from Gyeonggi-do are used as a vessel to contain the various melodies that appear in the work, transforming them radically. Through these musical styles, the characteristics of ancient Korean music can be found, while the work aims to express the religious conflicts and anxieties and the longing for release that lie within the human heart.”

6 New Boating (신뱃놀이) – composed by Won Il

The final piece again showed Won Il’s command of different rhythmic patterns, combining the traditional gutgeori rhythm with African beats in an adaptation of a folk song from Gyeonggi-do called Boating.

Won Il
Won Il acknowledges the applause after the performance of his New Boating

Won Il had promised the audience sounds from traditional instruments that were completely unfamiliar and strangely modern. He had also expressed a wish, and an expectation, that the audience would be happy as a result. He was correct on all points, and the standing ovation his orchestra received demonstrates the extent of the audience’s appreciation (which was rewarded with two encores).

The concert, which had started at 8:15pm, finished close to 10:45. The after-party in the Barbican’s Fountain Room had speeches from the Korean ambassador, an official from the British Foreign Office, a senior veteran from the Korean War, and the musical director. And by the time the guests had exhausted the generous hospitality it was close to midnight. Outside in Silk Street, some of the younger members of the orchestra were just starting their stroll back to the hotel, but were happy to chat and pose for a photograph.

Some of the orchestra members pose for the camera
Some of the orchestra members pose for the camera outside the Barbican’s Silk Street exit after the concert

It was an evening of extraordinary music-making marking 130 years of friendship between Korea and the UK. We hope the National Orchestra of Korea will return soon, and look forward to the rest of K-Music 2013.

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