Exotic, spiritual, vigorous Korean music



Singapore Chinese Orchestra

Singapore Conference Hall/ Last Friday

South Korea has exported so many musical talents to the world, including violinist Kyung Wha Chung, conductor Myung-whun Chung, soprano Sumi Jo, composer Unsuk Chin and, of course, K-pop icon Psy of Gangnam Style infamy.

So it is not a great surprise that the Singapore Chinese Orchestra had devoted an entire concert programme to Korean music.

The brainchild of music director Yeh Tsung and Korean composer Cecilia Heejeong Kim, the concert showcased Korean music as exotic, vigorous, spiritual and familiar, all at the same time.

The song Arirang, arguably the Koreans' second national anthem, was the subject of Kim's Arirang Blossoms which received its world premiere.

Its atmospheric soundscape, inhabited by teary strings, was lit up by the dizi family led by Yin Zhi Yang and Lim Sin Yeo. A melody heard on the sheng accompanied by plucked strings led into a fast dance before culminating in a short-winded close. That was just the right prelude to the first major work, Madam Suro, a concerto for janggo (drum) ensemble and orchestra, also by Kim.

The three-man team of wHOOL, formed by percussionists Choi Yoonsang, Yi Myongmo and Choi Sungwoo, sat on a raised stage like tabla players and struck their drums (both bare-skin and padded) with sticks.

A synchronised beat that opened soon got more complex, syncopated and frenzied as the work progressed, but their split-microsecond timing was perfect.

The trio was augmented by orchestral percussion (including an iron sheet beaten with a mallet) and weird disembodied vibrato-laden voices.

The six-part concerto based on a dramatic folktale concluded with the serene sound of beans rolled around in a harvesting basket.

The most substantial and austere work was GUT: Chasing Five Ghosts (Series III), which dwelled on the supernatural via shamans and religious rituals.

Its three parts each featured a different singer, beginning with male pansori Hwang Min-wang whose rugged baritone voice filled the hall as he struck a ceremonial drum. Then came the ghostly apparition of Beijing opera singer Tian Ping, with a painted face waving her long floppy sleeves and flaunting a siren-like call. There was a spiritual quality to the chanting that was both hypnotic and timeless.

Arguably the most spectacular was female pansori Park In-hye whose alto voice was the epitome of pathos itself.

Accompanied by projections of Buddhist images and leaping tongues of fire, the bridge between the living world and afterlife seemed blurred in this orgiastic mass of sound and light.

Coming back to earth was Tan Kah Yong's arrangement of K-Pop Medley, which closed the show.

The orchestra was joined by K-pop singers Chai Khan and Kim Hyunsu, who looked like matinee idols themselves. Accompanied by footage from several films and soaps, the populist elements got the audience clapping and stamping the floor as two ribbon- hat dancers joined in the fray.

One could say that this concert, which plumbed depths and scaled heights, got to the heart and Seoul of Korean music.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2016, with the headline 'Exotic, spiritual, vigorous Korean music'. Subscribe