Myung-Wung Chung is not the most flamboyant of conductors. But under his baton the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra were nothing less than electrifying. With two momentous staples of the concert repertoire and Unsuk Chin’s Šu, the SPO proved they are an orchestra to be taken seriously on the international stage.

Debussy’s evocative masterpiece La Mer was an ideal vehicle for exhibiting the orchestra’s talents. Though its orchestration is colourful, it requires a careful treatment so that it does not become over-indulgent. This is especially true for the first movement “De l’aube à midi sur la mer” (From dawn to midday on the sea), which depicts the progression from darkness to the bright sun of midday. Chun expertly controlled this gradual development: his conducting was patient, never forcing the orchestra’s sound. It was this that made the work’s climatic points so effective. Following Chung’s careful build-up, the culmination of the first movement in the horns and brass was utterly glorious. Chung's conducting was understated and he was unafraid of letting the orchestra take the reins. This independence that he gave allowed the SPO to work like chamber players in always being attentive to each other.

Wu Wei plays the sheng in Unsuk Chin’s Šu © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Wu Wei plays the sheng in Unsuk Chin’s Šu
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

Though born in South Korea, Unsuk Chin should not be identified as solely an Asian composer. In Šu she inserts the sheng – a Chinese mouth with organ with upraised pipes – as a soloist amongst a western orchestra. It might seem like an odd choice for a solo instrument. It is not loud and the sheng actually covers the performer’s face as they play since the pipes protrude upwards from the mouth. If we cannot see the soloist’s face let alone here them over the orchestra it will struggle to make for an engaging performance.

However, Chin’s scoring in Šu is incredibly clever, as there were few moments when the sheng could not be heard. Chin exploits the dramatic dialogue between the orchestra and soloist, so they were often heard in conversation rather than at the same time. The orchestra might interrupt the soloist at its full volume, but these interjections were kept short so that the sheng could quickly be returned to. The SPO’s chamber-like playing also helped. They sounded like a natural extension to sheng soloist Wu Wei. The sheng never sounded like a mere exotic gimmick: Chin’s scoring and the SPO ensured that it became a natural part of the orchestra.

Even though his instrument covered his face, it did not make Wei’s performance any less captivating. Particularly during the dance-like section his bodily movements compensated for this, especially in how they showed a performer completely absorbed in the music. Wei’s complete immersion must have produced his astonishing stamina too: the sheng was employed for almost the entire work but Wei never tired. Even when he was against the full orchestra, his energy ensured he remained the focus of attention. It was only the off-stage violin sextet that entered as the work was drawing to its close that could rival Wei. Positioned in one of the hall’s boxes, they used the Albert Hall’s space for a great effect. They were creepy, fragmentary, a glimpse of something beyond.

Myung-Whun Chung conducts the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Myung-Whun Chung conducts the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

If Šu gave a glimpse of the beyond, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor “Pathetique” proclaims that this can never be reached. Its title was suggested by the composer’s brother, who obviously felt the work’s overwhelming sorrow. However, the Sixth Symphony does not only portray tragedy. It also offers rays of hope that make the symphony even more horrifying when they are cruelly taken away.

The second theme in the first movement is such a movement: it is a gloriously beautiful melody. However, Chung brought out its more tentative side. Though it was less hopeful than in other performances, Chung had a dramatic purpose in mind. After a nervous second theme, the beginning of middle section was horrifically shocking. This threat had only been hinted at so far, and with the SPO’s ferocious playing they presented the real terror 

Incredibly, the fast, dance-like second movement followed by the triumphant march in the third made the audience forget the first movement’s terror. The audience could not help themselves from applauding at the third movement’s triumphant close. Chung played along with this, pretending that this was the real close, even giving a little bow. But when he suddenly turned to begin the fourth movement he quickly brought all applause to a halt. He tore the victory away with the entrance of the strings’ lamenting sigh. It felt so painful, sounding as if they were weeping and creating a huge sense of loss. Each new phrase was another wasted effort. This time, when the work died down, the audience had learned not to clap too soon. Or maybe a pause of silence was the only appropriate response for its absolutely desolate close.