Korean Music Festival Opens in London with a Bang

There is no PSY in sight, but plenty of style to spare at this ‘K-Music’ festival, which started on Friday night at the Barbican with a performance by the National Orchestra of Korea. Supported by the Korean Cultural Centre UK and Serious, this looks to be an ambitious and bright program of music introducing many different aspects of the Korean scene to a British audience.

The Barbican stage was set shortly after 8PM and the audience seemed in a receptive mood following the introduction by BBC Radio’s Andrew McGregor, warmly applauding as the orchestra entered and took their place at the traditional Korean instruments, along with head conductor Won Il. After a somewhat rough but boisterous opening number (which sounded to these ears more like a warm-up), the orchestra moved on to a more familiar piece called “Arirang Fantasy”, based on a tune that is perhaps the best-known of all in Korea. Rounding up with a sad, romantic song, it was time for a short break.

When the intermission had ended, the stage featured only a few musicians – the orchestra was pared down to a few essentials who provided back-up for a female shaman performing a traditional rite to “cleanse the spirit of a dead person”, as the program guide helpfully pointed out. This was perhaps the most impressive and forceful of the night’s performances, as it was unlike anything I have heard in Western music, and it is not something one should hear just from an audio recording – the visual aspect was centrally important to feeling and understanding the mood. It is also interesting in that it is not performed as an act of entertainment, but it has some cultural and religious significance in Korea.

Following on from there, the next song incorporated Buddhist and Japanese elements to produce something of the sublime. By contrast, the final performance in the program’s repertoire was extremely playful, even going so far as to have some members of the orchestra utilize toy instruments and pop balloons! I doubt you would ever see something like that in a Western classical concert, but it seemed to work in showing the humourous side of the Korean people and in particular, that of the song’s composer, Won Il.

All things considered, it was a wonderful primer for anyone new to Korean music other than K-Pop.

After receiving a standing ovation from the audience, the conductor left the stage several times, only to keep coming back for encore after encore. The reception was nothing less than enthusiastic each time, and I think it can safely be said that almost everyone left the concert hall in good spirits by the time it finally ended around 11PM. All things considered, it was a wonderful primer for anyone new to Korean music other than K-Pop.

This is only one of several highlights at the fest, however. Upcoming guests include Geomungo Factory and a special Pansori Night featuring acclaimed singer Ahn Sook-sun belting out an epic UNESCO-certified chant. More info (including how to purchase tickets) is available at serious.org.uk/K-Music.

By Tim Holm

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