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August 26, 2011 4:36 pm

Seoul Philharmonic/Chung, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

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Asian orchestras love to show off their prowess in European music. Few communicate genuine pride in their own musical tradition. Not so the Seoul Philharmonic: for its visit to Edinburgh last week, it fielded not only an internationally renowned Korean conductor, Myung-Whun Chung, but also some worthwhile Korean music.

The composer Unsuk Chin (born 1961) is no stranger to the temples of western culture, but until recently, she avoided incorporating Asian instruments into her sound-palette. She changed her mind after hearing the Chinese sheng virtuoso Wu Wei. Su, written for Wu, fitted Edinburgh’s “east meets west” theme perfectly and made a powerful calling card for South Korea’s premier orchestra.

The title is apparently a symbolic reference to air, and indeed it is the continuous flow of air through the handheld sheng, alternately inhaled and exhaled, that produces its uninterrupted flow – in principle like a bagpipe but in effect more akin to the electronically filtered sound of a small organ. For Chin, the challenge lay in giving it something expressive to say in an orchestral context. Her solution is to profile the soloist like an extraterrestrial being, humming and vibrating and generally communing with itself rather than with the orchestra, which behaves like an appreciative sound-chamber but does not speak the same language.

Occasionally, when the accompaniment is reduced to percussion and fitful brass, the orchestral framework is almost superfluous – until everyone finds common cause in a dance and the music gallops like an express train, with the sheng leading the way like a self-absorbed dervish. In the closing bars, soloist and orchestra resolve to exist in harmonious miscomprehension, as two violins from across the hall echo the sheng’s eerie intoning.

The result is as intriguing as it is baffling: could any western composer have pulled off a marriage of such apparently irreconcilable forces? The ground for Wei’s performance was prepared by a similarly deft rendition of Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées. After the interval Chung conducted a nimble Tchaikovsky Pathétique, which showed off his orchestra’s spirit without exposing the music’s emotional nerve-ends.

4 stars

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