An Enthralling London Appearance by the Korean Chamber Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Elgar, Schnittke, Piazzolla, Schubert. Ksenia Kogan (piano), Soyoung Yoon (violin) John Malkovich (narrator) Korean Chamber Orchestra, Ralf Gothóni (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London. 23.2.2015 (LB)

Elgar – Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47
Schnittke – Concerto for piano and string orchestra with narration of text from Ernesto Sabato’s novel, On heroes and Tombs.
Piazzolla – Four Seasons of Buenos Aires
Schubert – Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485


 In a relatively short period of time South Korea has transformed itself into an economic and musical powerhouse, but whilst Korean musicians’ successes at international competitions and as soloists are commonplace, its orchestras are yet to exercise the same dominance.  Following the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra’s debut at the BBC Promenade Concerts 2014, The Korean Chamber Orchestra visited the Queen Elizabeth Hall this evening for an enthralling concert, on their 50th anniversary world tour.

 In what I presume to have been a judicious acknowledgement to their London hosts, the orchestra started the concert with Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for strings, adeptly directed from the leader’s chair. The Introduction began in an orderly and respectful manner, eschewing the traditional sentimentality, whilst the Allegro benefitted from some passionate and sumptuous playing, from the violins in particular. Their unanimity of intonation, especially in those torrid passages in the higher registers was impressive, and the fittingly rousing coda brought proceedings to a successful and idiomatic conclusion.

 Alfred Schnittke’s ‘polystylism’ has always terrified, outraged and confused polite opinion, and this evening’s performance of his concerto for piano with string orchestra will probably have proved even more thought provoking, albeit for different reasons.

 It is not often that a piano concerto begins in the dark, with the soloist wearing a leotard and blindfold, whilst ringing a bell, but that is exactly what Ksenia Kogan, this evening’s soloist, was required to do. Schnittke’s concerto was presented as a piece of theatre, with the narration, by the celebrated and distinctive voice of John Malkovich, of text from the chapter “Report on the Blind” from Ernesto Sabato’s novel, On Heroes and Tombs.

 John Malkovich proved to be a powerful presence, and in the first of his two appearances for the evening, conductor Ralf Gothóni maintained unity between soloist, narrator and orchestra, all of whom were at their scintillating best.  Knesia Kogan’s musical and physical acrobatics were riveting and she completed her performance in darkness, sprawled on the floor, but with one hand still grimly reaching out for the last note she had played on the piano keyboard.The performance was an unambiguous triumph, and a handsome reward for such courageous and innovative programming.

 Leonid Desyatnikov’s idiosyncratic arrangement of Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, for solo violin with string orchestra, has become almost as universally popular as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and this evening’s performance was anything but routine. Soyoung Yoon, winner of numerous international violin competitions, was the astoundingly brilliant soloist; she played this overtly sensual music as if she had herself been born, and immersed, in the bars and bordellos of Buenos Aires.

 She executed the fiendish demands of the solo part with consummate ease and the orchestra’s at times challenging contribution was delivered with utter conviction and superlative unanimity. The powerfully rhythmic double bass part is critical to the success of any performance, and whilst the orchestra’s principal double bassist seemingly relished the limelight, he could easily have injected a little more swagger.

 Soyoung Yoon’s encore of Aleksey Igudesman’s Applemania was even more mind-boggling.

 Schubert’s 5th symphony, the only piece on the programme to utilise the wind players of the orchestra, and once again conducted by Ralf Gothóni, brought the programme to a more orthodox conclusion, but without the persuasive vigour that had characterised the ultra-high voltage Schnittke and Piazzolla.

 The orchestra responded to the enthusiastic audience response with two encores; the first an affectionate Finnish folk tune, played pizzicato in its entirety, conducted by Ralf Gothóni, and the second a fiery Korean folk song directed by the orchestra’s leader.

 The Korean Chamber Orchestra should be encouraged to stop off in London more regularly, on its future tours around the world.

Leon Bosch

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