It’s been too long since Youn Sun Nah performed in London: five long years. Last time was a small, intimate venue – Pizza Express in Soho – and the time before was the Queen Elizabeth Hall – more generous in terms of space but one that made the performers work hard to create the atmosphere.
Union Chapel proved to be a highly suitable best of both worlds: generous in space but nevertheless intimate in feel because of the layout of the seating in a near semicircle around the stage. In addition, an excellent sound system and imaginative lighting effects increased the sense of communication between performer and audience, enhancing the sensational music-making on stage.
As we commented with respect to her Pizza Express gig which she opened with Voyage, the duo bravely opened the set with a down-tempo number. This time it was Hurt by Nine Inch Nails. No warming the audience up with a lively crowd-pleaser: this demanded attention right from the start, and the audience gave it. The duo followed up with another slow number: the long crescendo that is Lament.
The remainder of the set mixed numbers of amazing virtuosity with ones of great intimacy. Ulf Wakenius contributed two of the compositions – the ones that required the most agility. His phenomenal technique meant that at times it was hard to believe that there was only one of him.
As always, Nah’s shy, reserved stage presence belied the fireworks she is able to let rip on demand, with a huge vocal and tonal range. From croaking to caressing, and high to low, Nah’s voice astonishes. In some of her recordings she really attacks some of the spectacular top notes in numbers such as Wakenius’s flamenco-infused Momento Magico. This time she floated them – an equally effective approach. Maybe she was trying to rest her voice: she had to ask the audience for a bottle of water at one point to help her through the next number – one which required more vocal effects than most.
Since her last visit Nah has acquired a box of tricks which conjures up an a capella choral accompaniment perfectly synchronised with her vocals. Used sparingly, it provided additional harmonic colour in two of the numbers.
Youn Sun Nah and Ulf Wakenius played the Union Chapel on 20 September as the main opening concert of K-Music 2016. The playlist was as follows: Hurt (Nine Inch Nails) | Lament (Youn Sun Nah) | Recent composition by Ulf Wakenius | Favourite Things (Rodgers and Hammerstein) | Uncertain Weather (Youn Sun Nah) | Sailors Life (trad) | Kangwondo Arirang (trad) | Momento Magico (Ulf Wakenius) | Jockeyful of Bourbon (Tom Waits) | Same Girl (Randy Newman)