The Seoul Philharmonic wants to be the one, not just the classical music soul of Seoul, but the first Asian orchestra to make it big on the international scene. At their Walt Disney Concert Hall debut Thursday night, the Koreans were — in a program of Debussy, Ravel and Tchaikovsky standards — exhilarating and, at their best, even awesome.
It's an orchestra of noticeably young players, and they weren't always at their best. The Seoul Philharmonic is not quite there yet, but it's on its way. And it has more than a little help from friends in high places to help it get there.
Founded in 1948, the Seoul Philharmonic is the oldest Korean orchestra and a showcase for a country that has become both a classical music and an economic epicenter for Asia. The ensemble tours widely and attracts corporate sponsorship (that shiny Hyundai in front of Disney on Grand Avenue wasn't there by chance). Seoul's music director, Myung-Whun Chung, is a star, and he has been able to turn his longtime relationship with Deutsche Grammophon into a new 10-CD deal for his orchestra (the Korean CD market is lucrative).
Meanwhile, at a time when South Korea is pointing missiles at North Korea, and the world is fretting, the Seoul Philharmonic could even serve an imperative diplomatic function. If Chung's idealistic negotiations succeed, his South Korean musicians might help break the tension by giving joint concerts with their colleagues in the North.
But the greatest interest for regular Angeleno concertgoers Thursday may have been Chung's first appearance on a podium here in 30 years. He was once ubiquitous on the Los Angeles music scene as a pianist and a young conductor who got his start with the Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra. From 1979 to 1983, he served as assistant and then associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Although invariably well-reviewed for his elegantly unstated, masterful musicianship and despite an impressive European and Asian career, he was never invited back.
Chung has changed. He has developed a flair for drama. His Seoul Philharmonic, which Chung has headed since 2005, has a beefy, opulent sound unusual for an Asian orchestra. Containing mostly Korean players (with the exception of the brass section and a Bulgarian concertmaster) and given their youth, this is an ensemble Chung has obviously built himself from the ground up.
There was a lot to like in Debussy's "La Mer" and Ravel's "La Valse" on the first half. They are the works (along with Ravel's "Mother Goose") on the orchestra's just-released first DG recording. Chung has a close connection with France (he had a stint at the Paris Opera and has been music director of Radio France's orchestra for a dozen years). He became close to Messiaen during the composer's final years, and Chung was also the first to conduct Pierre Boulez's "Notations" at the L.A. Phil.
In Debussy, Chung went in for grand gestures, rich sonorities and intense colors. The sound was big and bold. He treated the Ravel as an uninhibited showpiece. The orchestra was responsive and full of spirit. It's a band of soloists, however, and when they begin to listen to one another, they probably will be terrific.
Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" was the program's powerhouse conclusion. Again, Chung, who conducted everything from memory, went in for large theatrical gestures. Emotional Tchaikovskian melodies were drawn out to their full sob potential. The performance was often cinematic. Tchaikovsky meant the beginning of the development section in the first movement to shock. For Chung, that was invitation for a jump-cut punch in the gut.
I'm not sure we got the best of the Seoul Philharmonic. The most persuasive performance on its new CD is an effusive account of "Mother Goose." And the Seoul Philharmonic has the reputation for championing more new music than any other major Asian orchestra. Its composer-in-residence is Unsuk Chin, Korea's most renowned composer, and her "Su," a concerto for the Chinese mouth organ, the cheng, is part of the tour repertory.
The work was a commission by the L.A. Phil. Gustavo Dudamel gave the premiere in Disney in 2009. At the Seoul Philharmonic's appearance Wednesday in Santa Barbara, "Su" and "Mother Goose" had replaced the "Pathétique" on the program. It doesn't usually happen that way, but I suspect the Santa Barbarans got the better deal. Thursday's large, stylish, attentive and enthusiastic Disney audience, however, may not have felt that way.