Echoes of humanity - a review of 'Wave from Seoul' concert

While the Covid pandemic has forced most people worldwide to put a halt to their normal lives, last Friday night Nov 6, 2020 in Seoul the spirit of humanity triumphed as new works by composers from Korea and Malaysia joined hands for a very special evening of new music.

The programme of six works, three from each country respectively, paid tribute to a kaleidoscope of human experiences.

This special evening began with the insistent repetitive piano notes of Adeline Wong's 'Herringbone', which the pianist gave the full force of his delivery to bring the audience something altogether darker and more menacing than expected. It was an energetic, breathless reading of Wong's work that was perhaps tempered by these tumultuous times, and resonated with the tenor of today's covid-stricken world.

Wong’s driving work is technically challenging, and ACL Korea’s excellent live stream gave us in Malaysia, 4,600km away, a close up look at the pianists’ athletic vaults and deft fingering maneuvers, which was a marvel to watch for the sheer physicality of the performance.

This set the stage for Jongwoo Kim's 'Ulnori', a delightful duo for violin and piano which has plenty of virtuosic writing for the violin, which engages in a sort of Mephistophelean dance with the piano and evoking a wealth of emotion that, in the composer’s words, soar and plumb the depths of joy and sorrow, resulting in an spirited interplay between the two instruments.

Jessica Cho's new trio for flute, piano and cello 'Edge Of Lunacy'- a world premiere - explores the darkness of the human mind when it's on the brink of madness. It received a a searching performance by the fine Korean musicians, who deftly traversed the extreme states of emotion penned by Cho and gave the textures a sometimes pained, ghostly, frantic and occasionally desperate shades as demanded by the score.

The work begins with a nocturnal sound world in which the flute playing pianissimo in the high register evokes unease and sonic instability. The instrument takes the spotlight with a nervous solo passage and is seen as the central “character” to the piece, according to Cho, and phrases on the piano and cello play against it to create unsettling moods.

The microtonal conversation between the three instruments was especially gripping, leading up to the manic whirlwind of the final, quasi aleatoric section.

Jaekyung Lim's 'Circus' brought a touch of wry humour and playfulness to the evening, and for a few minutes the audience was allowed to forget their worries and instead delight themselves with the quirky conversation between the clarinet, with its quick runs and staccato chirps, and the quartet of piano and strings who respond with stunted interjections and puzzled sighs.

Of all shapes and colours

Sabahan composer Rayner Naili added another shade to the evening's palette with his new version of 'Humanity' for two violins, viola and piano, in which various sonic shapes try to communicate on various musical levels, at first in an uneasy sliding and searching for unison among highly contrasting threads and brief fragments of melody, from which a dance-like segment erupts (the original was written with a dancer forming part of the overall narrative, hence the theatrical flavour of the piece). 

From the shifting musical shapes eventually emerges an arching aria on the violin as a sort of “punchline” says the composer, to all the "chaos" that had come before.

The concert ends with the most expansive work on the programme, a six part exploration of the Korean folk song that revolves around three elements - a blue bird, a mung bean field and a mung bean jelly merchant.

Guisook Lee in her'Images of Sae-ya sae-ya' for flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano,  draws on fragments of the song and its texts to evoke a rich palette of moods that are at contemporary in texture and sound, but exudes a distinctly Korean flavour. The dance-like central section with a its seductive clarinet melody and chant-like intonations are highly distinctive and make a satisfying conclusion to an evening of marvelous music making.

Credit must go to ACL Korea president Seung Jae Chung's determination to bring the concert to fruition despite the year's unforeseen challenges to an exchange programme that was planned starting last year, and for mounting this excellent, remarkably polished production that everyone who loves music could “attend”, even if we could not be physically there with the rest of the audience, who audibly showed their appreciation from the sounds of the hearty applause that greeted the compositions.

You can watch a replay of the concert on ACL Korea's channel.

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