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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Murmurs

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Since the appointment of Stephan Meier as artistic director in 2016, it’s been good to see Birmingham Contemporary Music Group starting to move beyond the relative safety that typified its mainstream-centric vision in preceding years. The group’s most recent concert, last Thursday, featured two British works alongside music by composers from Asia. However, far from being yet another example of ‘east meets west’ (a staple contemporary music cliché), on this occasion the two didn’t so much ‘meet’ as east tried to sound a bit like west, while west remained essentially indifferent to any and all notions of geography.

Not that South Korean Donghoon Shin, BCMG’s current Apprentice Composer in Residence, should in any way be deliberately aiming to make his music sound archetypally ‘eastern’, but it was interesting how much of his new work for sheng and ensemble, Anecdote, seemed actively to be avoiding it. The second of its three movements was the kind of anonymous, generic, crash-bang romp that could have been written by pretty much any average UK mainstream composer, though the presence of the sheng – performed, as ever on such occasions, by Wu Wei – did at least detract from its otherwise overfamiliar gestural palette. The piece was more engaging in its outer movements; the opening, in particular, was seriously lovely, full of delicate colours, while the final movement utilised the sheng best of all by blending it properly with the rest of the ensemble, integrating to articulate a slow, solemn music that, at its close, became beguilingly ghostly. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Six Piano Études

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It’s been quite a while since my articles on the Barbican’s 2011 Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin, but here’s an omission from that account, which was only broadcast recently. The day began with a piano recital given by Clare Hammond, featuring Chin’s Six Piano Études. It’s perhaps not surprising, considering Chin studied for several years with György Ligeti, that she should be drawn to the étude form, yet hers are very different both stylistically and collectively from those of her former teacher.

There’s a strong sense of unity running through the six pieces, even of continuity. Chin is drawn to filigree piano writing, which is present right from the start of ‘In C’; the diatonic progressions in the bass guide the étude rather than grounding it, the right hand sounding like streams of water magically cascading upwards. ‘Sequenzen’ begins at the other end of the keyboard, in a lugubrious preamble that swiftly gains momentum, a single pitch lingering within. Hectic passagework breaks out—the upper part filled with embellishment—only hesitating briefly in a moment of repose before launching into a torrential climax. One realises how closely-related these two études seem when the third begins; the tempo of ‘Scherzo ad libitum’ is all over the place, charging off unpredictably only to slow down again immediately afterwards, a juddering sense of motion that brings to mind the inscrutable mannerisms of Nancarrow’s player-piano studies. The étude ends in similar fashion, but its centre is a lengthy episode of unstoppable material, like a burning juggernaut, notes flying everywhere like sparks and flares. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Šu

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As as addendum to my coverage of last year’s Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin (part 1, part 2), here is one of the few remaining pieces from that day, which was only broadcast a few weeks ago. Šu is a concerto for sheng and orchestra, the sheng being one of the most ancient traditional Chinese instruments, dating back over 3,000 years. Comprising a series of pipes played via a mouthpiece, its sound is something like a cross between a harmonica and an accordion; its appearance is like nothing else at all. Alongside the traditional instrument is a keyed version that enables fully chromatic tempered pitches, and it’s for this instrument that Chin composed Šu.

Šu is one of Chin’s most stubbornly enigmatic works; in both structural and material terms, it doesn’t so much develop as flex, passages of great delicacy repeatedly answered by more brutal outbursts. Wisely, Chin assigns the orchestra to a secondary role, allowing the sheng—an instrument that can barely muster a mezzo-forte—to act as both instigator and guide for proceedings. The ‘flexing’ i spoke of results in an episodic music, although Chin takes an audibly different approach in the two halves of the piece. Read more

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Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto

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Last year, in my article about the Total Immersion day devoted to the music of Unsuk Chin, i didn’t say much about the Violin Concerto, which was omitted from the BBC’s broadcast. However, in November they finally got round to broadcasting it, so here it is. The performance, at the Barbican in London, was given by Jennifer Koh with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov. In the concert hall, Koh’s violin often struggled to be heard above the considerable orchestral forces pitted against it, so it’s good to hear the balance so nicely restored in the broadcast.

Despite being composed in a familiar, four-movement plan, it’s a piece rather difficult to unpick. In some ways, the textures are simpler and more defined than usual, but this is countered by material that is highly organic. It opens in a dense place, lower notes moving vaguely while the soloist draws a high line filled with open strings and natural harmonics. The brass are the first to become apparent, chords shifting in the background, their movement causing everything momentarily to swell, and then halt. The soloist’s first cadenza is wiry and (in the best sense) aimless, its twists and swoops more a result of fun than purpose. But Chin is just as concerned with momentum as with reverie, and she soon pushes the violin back into a pace that becomes ever more swift, culminating in a moto perpetuo that’s urged on by orchestral stomps. Another cadenza ensues, more rapid than before, and a sustained brass chord ushers in the movement’s climax, which sends the frantic soloist plummeting. The slow second movement places heavy emphasis on Chin’s trademark use of percussion. Read more

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Barbican, London: Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion

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Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience. Read more

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Ancient and modern: Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto, Miroirs des temps; Chris Dench – Passing bells: night

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i’ve been a fan of Unsuk Chin‘s music ever since she returned to instrumental writing in the early ’90s with Akrostichon-Wortspiel. At the end of last month, Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ featured Chin’s more recent music. The Violin Concerto is awash with invention; all the talk of open strings is simply an opening gambit, from where it departs into vivid and distinctly unfamiliar territory. Often, the use of open strings is redolent of Berg’s concerto, but it’s unfair to latch onto that association, as Chin really does operate in a world apart. It’s much more akin to Ligeti’s concerto, and Chin acknowledges this in her interview during the programme, where she refers to her piece as an ‘answer’ to Ligeti’s. She also speaks of a desire to avoid a conventional orchestral sound through the introduction of ununusal instruments; the final movement of the concerto features steel drums, which inject a fittingly exotic and unconventional twist to the work as a whole. Miroirs des temps, with dense multi-part crab canons, is a compositional tour-de-force, but also rather strange. It doesn’t begin in the most auspicious way, the singers sounding, frankly, drab against the gentle interest of the orchestra; and when it then lurches into pastiche, i admit i had to restrain myself from stopping listening. It broadens into more interesting areas, though, as it approaches its middle; the fourth movement, dark and indistinct, is especially exciting. But, of course, this is a “mirror of time”, and so the less interesting faux Machaut and drabness return as the work progresses; not her finest work, by any means, but equally not without some very special moments—it’s just a shame that they are only moments. This performance of the Violin Concerto was given bu Hae-Sun Kang and the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by James MacMillan. Read more

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