Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra at 2011 Edinburgh International Festival

This article is from 2011.

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra

Programme of Messiaen, Tchaikovsky and Unsuk Chin

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing a programme of Messiaen, Tchaikovsky and their own Unsuk Chin at this year’s EIF.

When it comes to Edinburgh’s festivals, most Koreans have an upside-down view. Thanks to enormous hit shows from Korea such as the Matrix-style circus spectacle Jump! and last year’s Chef!, the Fringe has a huge profile back in South Korea. What goes on behind the red curtains of the Usher Hall or on the stage of the Playhouse in August is much less widely known.

Take Edward Choi, principal percussionist with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO). He can name several shows – Cookin’, Jump! – which have impressed the pickiest of August audiences. He has even worked with Drumcat, the all-female percussion group that wowed the city in 2008. (Sadly he does not mention if he had to wear a dress.) But despite having an important role with Korea’s most prominent orchestra, he has had to wait until this year to make his own Edinburgh debut.

Better late than never; the SPO is coming to this year’s Far East-themed International Festival with an uncompromising programme of Messiaen, Tchaikovsky and Unsuk Chin. Chin, the SPO’s composer in residence, is Korea’s foremost contemporary musical force of nature, her work praised by critics for its use of colour and described as ‘vivid, extravagant and technically assured to the point of virtuosity’. It is also, according to those who have to play it, fiendishly difficult.

How did they arrive at this programme? It’s the dilemma for Asian symphony orchestras: do they underline their difference by picking home-grown pieces or show their classical chops by tackling the greats of the western canon? Joo-hoo Kim, the SPO’s chief executive, was not the only one to heartache over the Edinburgh running order.

‘On tour in Europe, choosing repertoire is the big task. We are an Asian orchestra, so we have to bring our own characteristic pieces, although they don’t necessarily need to have an Asian character. Unsuk’s pieces have a very universal communication. She has a good reputation, she is very well known to European contemporary music lovers. This piece couldn’t be better for us to bring as an Asian orchestra.’

Chin is based in Berlin but comes to Seoul to put the orchestra through their paces four times a year. Her pieces are highly demanding to play: Choi compares them to running a marathon. ‘It’s really tough, it’s a challenge, but if you can do it there’s a certain satisfaction. It’s a lot of work.’

In Edinburgh the orchestra will play ‘Su’, Chin’s sheng concerto. The sheng, for those unfamiliar with their oriental wind instruments, is a 17-pipe Chinese mouth organ, the size of a large vase. It will be played by a guest artist, Wu Wei, as there is no permanent sheng section within the SPO. He is, apparently, a sight to behold. ‘The sheng’s potential for complex chords was fully explored in a work whose terrifying climax felt like a headlong rush to destruction,’ sighed The Guardian after the piece was played at the Barbican as part of last year’s European tour.

Kajin Lim, second violin with SPO, thought ‘Su’ was the highlight of those concerts. ‘We played two of her pieces, the violin concerto which was a big award winner [it won the hugely prestigious Grawemeyer award for music composition in 2004], but the sheng concerto had greater audience response. It’s a new genre for people, fun to watch, he puts on a great show. It’s such an unusual instrument, even as musicians we’re really surprised. He stands upfront, he lowers it, he taps it, sometimes blows into it.’

‘It’s such an exotic instrument, I’m sure the audience will find it incredible.’

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, Usher Hall, 228 1155, 24 Aug, 7.30pm, £12–£42.

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra

The Seoul Philharmonic makes its Festival debut under the baton of Myung-Whun Chung with a rich and varied programme: Messiaen's characteristically passionate early work Les Offrandes Oubliées; Šu - Concerto for Sheng and Orchestra by leading Korean composer Unsuk Chin, which explores the range of the sheng, a traditional…

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