The spectacle in Downtown Los Angeles last Thursday night was certainly a sight to see: crowded parking spaces, swarms of people making their way to Disney Hall, and traffic swirling along Grand Avenue and its adjoining streets. Was it a rock band that awaited listeners on the stage at Disney Hall on Thursday night? Not quite.

Myung-Whun Chun © Jean-François Leclercq
Myung-Whun Chun
© Jean-François Leclercq

Coming hot on the heels of a new Deutsche Grammophon album was the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra under the leadership of its music director, Myung-Whun Chung. With Los Angeles being home to the largest community of Koreans outside the Korean Peninsula, Thursday’s concert had the air of a homecoming. In fact, it was a homecoming of sorts for Chung who had served as associate music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic during the heyday of Carlo Maria Giulini in the 1980s. Having not stepped foot in Los Angeles since his apprenticeship years, Chung looked visibly moved. “I’m very happy to be back here,” he said.

The sight of the orchestra itself was also quite a sight. It is a massive ensemble; the strings alone numbered nearly 70 members. Though the orchestra is recognized as a pride of the Korean nation, it’s also a product of our increasingly globalized culture, counting among its ranks quite a few foreigners, most notably its concertmaster.

In the global culture of classical music, South Korea is playing an increasingly important part. Its market for recordings and concerts is among the largest in the world; the under-40 demographic growing rapidly—contrary to the rest of the world. On the crown of this achievement is the rise of the Seoul Philharmonic, which has emerged as one of the finest orchestras in the Far East.

The program—with Debussy and Ravel sharing the first half; Tchaikovsky alone taking the second—showed off most handsomely the orchestra’s flair for color.

Debussy’s La mer sparkled and shimmered; the sea’s salt air almost palpable. The lyricism of the cellos in the first movement—playing with a perfectly judged sense of ardency—was beautifully molded. Splashes of colors crashed about in mighty waves at the work’s raucous close, the orchestra digging into the music for all its worth. Attractive but less urgent was their reading of Ravel’s La valse, which downplayed much of the danger in the piece for the sake of melodic fluency, though the tuba growled with grotesque menace.

Following intermission was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in a reading that was balletic—even bracing—but missing the Slavic sense of melancholy so crucial in this work. The first movement was shaped with great beauty, though the central climax seemed to go for little. The limping 5/4 waltz and third movement march that followed sprinted along with an almost jaunty springiness that belied the work’s tragic heart. When the finale finally faded away into the darkness, one was made aware that the tragedy played from a comfortable distance; never allowing the listener closer than arm’s length.

Dispelling the lingering bitterness left in the wake of the Tchaikovsky symphony were two tasty lollipops. First was Rachmaninov’s ever popular Vocalise; the second Brahms’s zesty Hungarian Dance no. 1. Whereas the Rachmaninov was played with winsome lyricism, the Brahms’ paprika-flavored rhythms seared the hall.

Color—and a vibrant sense of color at that—is the hallmark of this orchestra. The demonstrative audience seized upon this, calling for multiple curtain calls for conductor and orchestra—until the orchestra finally exited the stage to signal the end of the concert. Even then one lone gentleman seated in the row ahead of me continued to shout for an encore.

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