Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen an unusual number of orchestra concerts, and mostly they’ve been quite good. I’ll get to all that in a bit, but I want to generalize a little about concertgoing in Korea first.
The programs here tend to be even more conservative than what I was used to in Saskatoon, Sasktchewan, the last time I was attending classical music concerts regularly. In Saskatoon, you would often see a contemporary composition open a concert — often enough that I had something to really look forward to most of the time. But in Korea, it’s very often dead white guys all the way through — very often long dead white guys. You rarely even see Bartók or Webern or Stravinsky, let alone Michael Torke or Toru Takemitsu. This is frustrating for someone like me, who likes to hear music that’s freshly sliced off using the bleeding edge, even if it is only the first ten minutes of the concert.
Another issue is the audiences. It’s quite funny: when you go to a punk rock show in Seoul, or an indie-rock show, the audiences are somehow oddly “too uptight” — or at least they used to be when I was playing or attending shows. Very little dancing, a lot of just sitting and listening. (Though at some places there was more dancing, like some nights at DGBD.) Well, at classical concerts, you might find the opposite: a lot of audience members are good, but just enough of them are not-quite-uptight enough to maintain proper concert etiquette. Depending on the price of the concert, you’ll encounter people who either are totally into it, silent, on-the-ball, or else you’ll be surrounded by annoying ajummas chattering to one another about their cell phones — which, horrors!, are still on during the concert — or by bored guys who are flipping loudly through the concert booklet because they’d rather be at home watching TV but their girlfriends made them come. (I encountered both of these — two ajummas comparing cell phones during Prokofiev, and a fidgety, loud-page-flipping guy — at the concert I attended tonight, despite how good the performances actually were.)
No, I am not exaggerating. It’s rare I attend a concert where some blasted cell phone doesn’t go off at some point, even though they post a screen with instructions to turn off phones during the concert every damned time. (I wish they’d just buy cell-phone frequency blockers and be done with it.) The issue, I think, is that for a lot of people, it’s not so much the music as the eliteness of being at a symphony concert that holds the atttraction. Actually sitting still for two hours and listening to abstract music, well, that’s not something most people are used to doing. So you have chatters. And fidgeters. And loudly-page-flipping program booklet readers. And people inconsiderately fiddling with their phones or holding conversations during the performance, until you tap them on the arm and shush them. Which is what you have to do, because they often don’t take a hint from just a dirty look.
The best indicator that you’re around people like that — people who are likely to ruin the concert for you — is that they’re dressed to the nines, that is, in their absolute Sunday best. The people who dress up that much for a symphony concert often have other things in their mind than the music itself… sad, but very true, even in a Korean audience, where people dress more formally as a rule and where mode of dress is so much more of a signifier of everything than in the West.
(It’s still a big signifier in the West, but it’s not quite so slavishly followed as here. The level to which people follow it here would elicit a response among many Westerners of, “Just what are you trying to prove, man?” The Korean response I found funniest was from a co-worker, who said, “Koreans just know how to dress, and tend to dress better than most Westerners.” Uh, okay. For a certain, er, Korean definition of better, I suppose.)
But, on the positive side, you also have very enthusiastic audiences.
Okay, sure, they also happen to clap extra-loud for any soloist of Korean blood, even when they’ve obviously flubbed the performance. (Especially if it’s a Korean performer who is famous abroad. Man, they love those people. There’s a famous pianist here, Kim Sun-Wook, who apparently finds this frustrating — the ease with which he garners standing ovations, even on an off night. It’s gotten so that he’ll have to move to someplace where he’s relatively unknown, just to keep the level of challenge high enough for himself.)
But one thing about Korean audiences is that they show their appreciation. They clap their hands raw after every piece. (And, some people, sometimes, even do it between movements, unfortunately.) People aren’t shy to stand, even alone, to give someone a standing ovation, even if their friends don’t stand with them. (Quite an unusual thing in Korean society, this going out on a limb alone, especially in a praiseful way. I have to wonder if it’s an extension of the older etiquette governing performances: at pansori shows I’ve seen, people yell out encouragement to the performer pretty much when they feel like it, individually. Inhibition is much lower for this sort of thing than, for example, dancing alone or with a partner at a rock show.)
If you’re buying tickets for a concert, the best thing to do is go online. You may need help from a Korean if you can’t read the language yourself. The big venues are the Seoul Arts Center and the Sejong Center. In the Seoul Arts Center, you generally have two options: you can get seats on the 1st floor, if the orchestra’s not too famous or if you don’t mind paying a lot. You might still encounter idiocy there — Lime once saw Korea’s most famous fashion designer sitting in (or was it near?) the front row; during a piano concerto, I think it was, he fell asleep in his white space-suit outfit. He forced his troupe to stand for an ovation at the end of the piece that he, big old philistine that he is, slept through.
(Yes, I’ll admit what I’m thinking: “Bloody tourists.”)
You also have a great deal of people in the first floor who will try to impress their girlfriends in various ways, like saying, “Excuse me,” in English as they stomp on your toes to get past you, or who will comment to one another about how you’re dressed, thinking you can’t understand. For a lot of people, going to the symphony is a formal occasion, moreso even in Korea than in North America. I, of course, mutter about bloody tourism when I see this, too, but it’s a fact of life, I suppose.
The other option at the Seoul Arts Center is that you can get choir seats. These are up beside or behind the orchestra, so if there’s a soloist besides a pianist, you’ll have a terrible view. But the sound is okay, and from the sides you have a great view of the orchestra and conductor, plus — and this is the best part — the majority of the people who sit there are really into music, as in, they’re musicians themselves, so none of the shenanigans and tomfoolery except at the cheapest of shows. I have seen a few people who fell asleep or had phones on up in the choir seats, mind, but there’s a much lower concentration of effing tourists, and a much higher concentration of people. And the biggest signal of this is dress: you see people in casual dress, with instrument cases, people who know the pieces being played, absently practicing the fingering for this or that piece during intermissions, people who are there to listen. My previous reticence to frequent the choir seats is gone, and now I think I prefer them to any other seat. At least, the choir seats off stage left.
(And yeah, I still kind of find it weird how many people bring their violins to the concerts. I have a sneaking suspicion that some people do it just as a kind of musical street-cred move, a fashion statement of sorts. But you see tons of violins and cellos. Kind of like how you see so many of your friends who’re subscribed to fiction mags are writers themselves, I guess.)
When you book tickets, you can choose your seats. Choose aisle seats if you can — this gives you a better chance of moving if one or more “tourists” end up beside you. The closer you are to the stage, often, the better. Sometimes the 3rd balcony is a better place for sound than up close, though. (If you don’t mind the people being little dots on the stage, it’s good.) Buying a membership card at the Seoul Arts Center gets you discounts, and it’s worth it if you plan to go to a lot of concerts.
As for the Sejong Center, the best option in my opinion is a high-up balcony. That’s where I’ve had the fewest problems, and the sound is fine. You can buy tickets for that concert online, to, but show up early: the ticketing staff is less efficient than at the Seoul Arts Center, and you may be in line longer. (Also, they’ll insist you get into
Okay, as for the concerts I’ve seen, I’ll put them after the fold. Some people might be interested in what I’ve seen, and my reactions to performers or composers, but most won’t be, so there’s no sense in cluttering the site with all that. Click if you want to know all about it.
- 27 February 2008: Gewandhaus Orchester de Leipzig with the Thomaner Chor, conducted by George Christoph Biller, who looked weirdly like Maureen McHugh from a distance though he doesn’t on this page. I think it was mostly his hair. Featuring a bunch of vocal soloists whose names I cannot find online. Program
- J.S. Bach B-minor Mass — Well, I don’t subscribe to the idea Bach was all Christian and faithful and that his music shows this. Some people hold up Bach’s music as evidence of his religiosity — how insulting to the human imagination — but I do think the man was in touch with some of the deepest creative forces in the human mind, and this performance renewed my faith in Bach as the most important composer ever.
- 11 March 2008: London Philharmonic, conducted by a surly-looking Slavic fellow named Vladimir Jurowski. Featured artist: Richard O’Neill on viola. (The guy is of Korean ancestry, and his Korean family name was included in the program notes but not online. I think it was Kim.) Program:
- Turnage Evening Songs — somewhat meh.
- Walton Viola Concerto — okay, but O’Neill was less than perfectly audible, and the crowd went much more wild than I thought was warranted by the performance. See below.
- Prokofiev Symphony 5 in Bb Major (Op. 100) — I liked it more than I thought I would. There was an encore, something else by Prokofiev, which was absolutely wonderful, but I’ve no idea what it was.
- 13 March 2008: London Philharmonic, conducted again by Jurowski. Featured artist: Kun-Woo Paik on piano. Program (from this poster):
- Turnage Lullaby for Hans — better than the”Evening Songs” but still not my thing.
- Henze Seconda sonata per archi — I can’t really remember it too well. I guess that maybe says something.
- Prokofiev Piano Concerto 2 — Paik flubbed it in several places. I just kind of felt embarrassed for him, and embarrassed at how, once again, the audience lavished applause on him. Jurowski was pretty professional, but you could see the pain on his face at a couple of points.
- Tchaikovsky Symphony 6 — Good, for Tchaikovsky. I still think the man’s music sounds like soundtrack for movies I wouldn’t want to see, but this one had some very good moments. However, the audience clapped at the wrong places, like, more than once. And, prior to the soft bit tacked onto the end — the part that, had Tchaikovsky an editor, would have been removed in favor of ending with a bang — the audience went wild with applause. Jurowski looked downright pissed off at the audience for not knowing their Tchaikovski, but to be honest, I didn’t know and only hesitated after a single handclap, when I realized the piece wasn’t done. And I was in the choir seats. This was an object of great discussion online afterward, I’m told, among Korean classical music fanatics. There was no encore, which people perceived as an agry response to the misplaced applause.
I also have seen three shows as part of the 2008 Orchestra Festival. They’ve featured orchestras from around the country, and been much better than I expected, in general, as well as quite affordable.
- 8 April 2008: Daegu City Symphony Orchestra, directed by Hyun-Sai Lee. Featuring Jung-Ran Lee on cello. Program:
- E. Chabrier ‘Dance Slave’ from ‘Le Roi malgre lui.’ — Not my thing, but alright.
- G. Fauré Elegie in C minor Op.24 (switched in performance, if I remember right.) — This was breathtakingly lovely, the kind of piece of music that makes you want to Google for the score. Excellent cello work by Miss Lee.
- C. Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor, Op.33. Again, very good work on the cello and the orchestra supported her well. I was surprised at how much I admired the piece, considering my previous, lukewarm experiences with this composer.
- B. Bartók Concerto for Orchestra — Just as excellent as I remember it, and not a bad rendition, considering it’s the Daegu City Orchestra. I think there was an encore, but I don’t remember what it was.
- 18 April 2008: Daejeon Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Edmon Colomer. (Yes, a foreigner. I was surprised, looking through the Festival program, to discover that a number of orchestras here have foreign conductors. This orchestra had the highest number of foreign instrumentalists of any I’ve see in Korea, and I wasn’t surprised to find they’d been atttracted not just by a Western conductor, but also by a damned fine orchestra in general.) Featuring Seung Kyung Lee on the oboe. Program:
- Anton Webern Passacaglia, Op. 1 — It was the first time I’ve heard this piece live, though I’ve heard the recording dozens of times. They were pretty damned good.
- R. Strauss Oboe Concerto in D Major — I usually don’t care for Strauss, but Seung Kyung Lee made this the highlight of the evening. Not just the amusement of seeing her cheeks puff up when she played, but the sound of her oboe — it was like a voice from the skies, there to say everything is right with the world. This performance seriously blew me away.
- G. Mahler Symphony No. 1 in D major (“Titan”) — I’ve always respected Mahler, and feared him a little, but I don’t remember getting to see him live. I might have, back in my student days in Saskatoon when I saw Symphony concerts monthly, but I don’t remember it. My only complaint is that the famous harmonics from the opening were so soft they were barely audible from only the 4th row on the main floor. Recordings I’ve heard had a much clearer resonance to the string harmonics. But otherwise, it was an excellent performance, and made me want to listen to everything Mahler wrote, all in one go. No encore.
- 23 April 2008: Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Seikyo Kim. Featuring Hyun-Su Shin on violin. Program:
- J. Sibelius Suite “Karelia” (Op. 11) — When I describe Tchaikovsky as sounding like a movie score composer, I don’t mean it in the way I mean it when I say that Sibelius makes epic movie music, for which you don’t need a movie. Though you can hear how movie score composers have listened to — and pilfered from — not just Stravinsky but also, most definitely, Sibelius, their borrowings have done little to weaken his sound and language. This suite was just as stunning as when he first composed it.
- J. Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 — Miss Shin did a generally good job. I’m not so knowledgeable about the piece, or about the violin as an instrument: sometimes those quick double- and triple-stops sounded like flubs, but sometimes even played correctly I hear them as flubs. I can say that most of the performance sounded wonderful, with a nice clear and loud tone, and a very sensitive touch.
- S. Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 in Bb Major, Op. 100 — This wasn’t quite as on-target as the London Philharmonic’s performance, but it was pretty good. There was an encore, but I have no idea what it was.