By Ted AYALA
It’s not an uncommon occurrence to see a flurry of vehicular and pedestrian traffic wending its way over to Disney Hall on any night a concert is under way. But the sight that met the hall’s patrons last Thursday night was something else entirely. Slow traffic on Grand Avenue and its surrounding streets. All available open parking spaces in the vicinity of the hall gone. And crowds that seemed to consist of the entirety of Los Angeles’ Korean community – augmented with a busload of employees from Hyundai Motors – converging on Disney Hall.
The casual observer may be forgiven for thinking that Girls’ Generation, SHINee, or some other K-pop band had set foot inside the hall. In reality it was another Korean mega-band that had inspired this turnout.
Stopping off in Los Angeles for one night, the Seoul Philharmonic assembled on the stage of Disney Hall for a concert of Debussy, Ravel and Tchaikovsky. Its music director, Myung-Whun Chung, has spent the past several years forging the orchestra into a world-class ensemble that stands as one of Asia’s finest.
The hall, which had nary an empty seat, was packed with members of the local Korean community that came out to support one of the gems of Korea’s musical culture. It also was a symbol of how profoundly interconnected the world is today that many non-Koreans occupied important positions in the orchestra, beginning with its excellent concertmaster.
Color and flair were the orchestra’s calling cards, elements that stepped to the fore most winningly in their take on Debussy’s “La mer.” Slightly tart wind playing, which crisply offset the layered sonorities of the Korean strings, were a perfect match for this Gallic musical seascape. Chung drew from his orchestral palette sounds at once bold and subtle. Brass was firm and noble; never stentorian or overpowering. The strings swirled and bristled in the work’s middle movement with all the agitation of the unceasing ocean currents. When the orchestra came to a raucous head at the work’s close, the electric mood of the hall was nearly palpable.
Less impressive, though admirable nonetheless, were the subsequent works: Ravel’s “La valse” and Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 6.” Where an almost Technicolor panoply seized the listener’s ear in the Debussy, the colors in the Ravel were curiously muted. The darkness and horror at the core of this music were glossed over; attention, instead, being focused on immaculately manicured playing.
More of the same was heard in the Tchaikovsky symphony that sounded uncharacteristically reticent, as if the work’s tragedy were being kept at arm’s length. The first movement’s central climax – with an anguished quotation from the Russian Orthodox mass for the dead capping it – sounded grand rather than grim. Boisterousness, even jauntiness informed the moods of the central movements, which were shorn of their subversive irony. It was without a doubt a superbly played performance, but one that left the listener unmoved.
The orchestra returned to form in its two encores: Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” and Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 1.” Especially in the Brahms did the most appealing facets of the orchestra again arise. Exciting, nearly visceral musicality and a brilliant sense of sonic coloring animated these oft-performed chestnuts.
As it stands, the Seoul Philharmonic ranks with Japan’s seasonal Saito Kinen Orchestra as the best on the Asian continent. But with the taste they gave its audience on Thursday, they may be well on its way to taking the crown all for itself in due time.