South Korean pop music is not the only musical genre South Koreans are investing in, it seems. Korean pop music, or K-pop, has become quite popular in its neighbouring countries in the last decade or so, and gradually, Korean people’s musical enthusiasm has expanded to western classical music as well.

Novus String Quartet © Jin-Ho Park
Novus String Quartet
© Jin-Ho Park
The four members (all male, in their mid-twenties) of the Novus String Quartet opened their first concert at the Suntory Hall Blue Rose Hall with performing Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet. The concert was a part of the Chamber Music Garden, an annual festival since 2011, hosted by Suntory Hall. The event invites well-established string quartets from outside Japan, as well as providing opportunities for young Japanese classical musicians to perform with and learn from world-class musicians. The bold pentatonic materials in the opening of the first movement by the violist aesthetically canvassed the composer’s liking of the instrument and his impression of the country’s (America’s) view, reminiscing a gypsy-like folk tune that one may have heard somewhere. Immediately from the first movement, the quartet showed no hesitation in delivering to the audience the picturesque sound contours, created by the Czech composer on American soil. The slow second movement seemed to have been carefully calculated and rehearsed so that it doesn’t pulse too much, thus the melodic line came naturally alive and present, while not being too detached from the overall structure. The rhythmic third movement was fun to listen to, as the ensemble’s strength seemed to be in understanding and executing complex rhythmic figures (which was proven again in the next piece, Isang Yun’s String Quartet no. 1). Purity in intonation, impeccable ensemble and solo skills, and the chiselled rhythmic definition in the fourth movement encapsulated the high-level artistry of the ensemble.

Isang Yun was born in South Korea during the years of Japanese annexation, and later changed his citizenship to Germany after a controversial imprisonment under the accusation of possible spy work in North Korea. He could have been one of the leading composers in the “avant-garde” music in Korea if he had not changed his citizenship, but the era was probably not right for him. There is always something authentic about a work performed by the people of the same ethnic origin of the composer. Yun's music is not totally atonal, but the harmonic structures and progression may be a stretch to untrained ears. The ensemble’s execution of the new music seemed only appropriate and “original”, clearly showing the quartet’s confidence and identity in this music.

The performance of Schumann Piano Quintet in E flat major a collaboration with a young and promising Japanese pianist, Mami Hagiwara. The presentation of the canonic classical chamber music was nothing too unconventional, although the youthful energy of quartet and pianist became the original interpretation itself when voicing Schumann’s lyrical lines in all the movements.

After long audience applause, the quartet responded by performing the beautifully arranged version of the Korean folk tune Arirang, a tune dear to most Korean natives. The Novus not only gave a successful concert in Tokyo, but also gained a new audience in Japan as it proved themselves the leading string quartet in South Korea where western classical chamber music is gradually growing.