To celebrate their 50th birthday, the Korean Chamber Orchestra are doing a European tour, and their first stop was London. For works involving just strings, the orchestra is directed by its konzertmeister Kim Min, and for their London concert Finnish conductor Ralf Gothoni took the baton for anything larger.
It was ambitious to open their London concert with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, without a conductor. The ebb and flow of Elgar’s tempi was reasonably well controlled, but at the expense of a narrow dynamic range. Maybe the orchestra just needed time to settle, because as the piece progressed they seemed to become more comfortable in the Elgarian idiom, so that by the end it sounded as if the music was in their blood.
The highlight of the programme was a striking performance of the European premiere of a new composite creation. The Schnittke Concerto for piano and string orchestra had been adapted to include a narration of Report on the Blind, a chapter from the novel On Heroes and Tombs by Argentinian writer Ernesto Sabato. The Report is by an obsessed and paranoid individual who believes that the blind are a sinister sect who control the world. The psychotic narrative went well with the disturbing music, and Malkovich’s performance a perfect blend between rhythmic and free-flowing speech, while Ksenia Kogan entered into the theatricality of the piece from the keyboard, giving an authoritative performance of the score combined with complementary balletic body movements. From the limited information about the work available in advance, the audience had no idea what to expect. But it is a work which deserves to be performed more often, giving exposure to an author and a composer neither of whom are part of the mainstream. But it would be difficult to imagine any narrator matching Malkovich, who collaborated with Kogan in creating this new piece.
After the interval came Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, a rarely performed crowd-pleaser which is a homage to Vivaldi’s original, though set firmly in tango country. This is only the second time this reviewer has heard the work, the first time being a live performance by the much smaller Sejong Soloists (fourteen string players compared with the thirty or so in the KCO). Yoon Soyoung, who has just recorded the work, gave a sparkling performance while the conductorless orchestra relished the Latin rhythms.
The final scheduled piece an enjoyable Schubert’s Fifth, for which the Korean strings were augmented by some locally-hired winds.
As always with a Korean performance, there were generous encores. In interesting Finnish piece for pizzicato strings highlighted, according to the conductor, the similar sense of melancholy in both nations, and we finished with a Korean folk song arrangement.
This was an enjoyable and well-executed programme, in which the Piazzolla and Schnittke will long stay in the memory.
The Korean Chamber Orchestra with John Malkovich and Ksenia Kogan performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Mondya 23 February 2015.