When Unsuk Chin's Šu (2009) for sheng written for Wu Wei premiered in London at the Barbican in 2011, it didn't work for me at all. I wrote then that "overall the music didn't develop the possibilities beyond the initial novelty" of this remarkable instrument, and "Wu's playing is assertive and full bodied but I'm not sure how far he's stretched as an artist by this material" (read my full piece here which has background on the sheng and on Wu Wei, the soloist). But at BBC Prom 55, when Myung-Whun Chung conducted the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, the piece was transformed. What a difference a sympathetic orchestra makes!
Chung and his orchestra intuitively understand the context. Šu isn't so much a concerto in the usual sense as an orchestral expansion of the instrument. Wu Wei plays a modern version of the ancient instrument, The "modern" Sheng is much bigger, often 36 pipes as opposed to the traditional 17. Playing so many reeds by fingers alone would be difficult, so modern Shengs are keyed for ease of operation. Range is bigger, volume is bigger, many more musical possibilities. Just as in the west, composers had to write new music for new instrumental and performance styles. There's a whole genre of modern Chinese music that's different from traditional folk idiom, but also from western form. Wu Wei's instrument is so unique that it's inspired many composers to write for him. He's fascinating, exploring the myriad nuances and possibilties with such poise that one almost forgets how difficult the instrument is to play.
Unsuk Chin adds her characteristic panoply of eccentric instruments and jokey asides, but Chung fundamentally lets Wu Wei lead, so Šu evolves like a solo work with embellishments. Apart from ceremonial music, Chinese music wasn't orchestral in the western sense but closer to chamber forms. Chung understood the balance. in favour of soloist, allowing the main line to flow smoothly without slipping into the eddies. Sheng legato is amazing, and Wu's masterful circular breathing creates wonders. Yet the instrument is also oddly percussive, so Wu can shape staccato riffs and jerky rhythms. This is modern music, and not uniquely Chinese, but greatly invigorating. For an encore Wu followed with an arrangement of his own, based on a traditional folk melody. Wu's variations on the basic melody displayed his instrument's versatility. Pipa or flute or voice might be more plaintive, but the sheng is robust and confidently inventive.
Although the BBC is making a big deal about global orchestras this season, the Seoul Philharmonic is in an altogether more elevated league than many of the others. It's world class, so good that it can easily stand on its own merits, and should get the credit it deserves. Korean musicians (and singers) dominate orchestras and opera houses all over the world. In Korea, classical music isn't a niche but part of mainstream life and national identity. (Read my article on Jihoon Kim's Korean recital here). Please also see my posts on orchestrations of Arirang. Western politicians who complain that classical music is elitist should address the collapse of music education instead of slamming arts organizations that produce good work. The German concept of Bildung applies in many Asian countries. English speakers just don't comprehend. With the large pool of musicians in South Korea, Chung is able to choose players of an unusually high standard.
The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra don't quite have the panache of Chung's other orchestra, the Orchèstre Philharmonique de Radio France, but what they do have is the sensitivity to create refined, diaphanous textures. This La Mer sparkled. Shimmering lustre, balancing the darker undercurrents. This Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B minor, 'Pathétique' also impressed. Altogether a satisfying Prom with an orchestra we should hear more often (other than on recordings).