The penultimate concert in CAMA’s 2011-12 International Series exceeded expectations in a number of ways, particularly in regard to the billing of the series title, as this was an intensely international evening, filled with music that transcended periods, borders, and conventional generic boundaries.
Santa Barbara audiences will remember dynamic Maestro Myung-Whun Chung from his appearance here in March 2010 at the helm of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (OPdRF) in a program devoted entirely to the works of Maurice Ravel. This concert included two of the works by Ravel that were heard on that night in 2010 as played by the French orchestra — Ma mère l’oye, a suite of dance pieces based on Mother Goose stories, and La valse, Ravel’s dark and stormy distillation of the Viennese tradition.
The Seoul Philharmonic performed admirably on both these difficult scores, demonstrating not only elegance and control but also a passion and intensity that, while it may not have fully matched that of their French counterparts, nevertheless landed them securely within the ranks of the world’s top symphony orchestras of 2012. They were aided in this not only by the presence of the irrepressible Chung — who I spotted immediately after the concert sprinting away from the Granada down the alley toward Anapamu Street, presumably to board a supersonic Hyundai en route to some other high-profile gig — but also by the estimable playing of concertmaster Svetlin Roussev, the debonair Bulgarian violinist who also fulfills that role with the OPdRF.
Nevertheless, and despite the incomparable brilliance of Ravel’s compositions, the evening’s highlight was unquestionably a new work by Korean composer Unsuk Chin. Chin was on hand at the Granada to take a bow, looking radiant as she basked in the glow of a triumphant performance by Wu Wei and the orchestra of her concerto for Chinese sheng titled, simply, Šu.
The sheng, for those unfamiliar with this extraordinary instrument, is a true hybrid of the Eastern and Western musical traditions. Based on the ancient Chinese sheng, a kind of Chinese harmonica consisting of fixed reeds that are played by both the inhalation and the exhalation of breath through a mouthpiece, the modern sheng was adapted to the Western scale in the early 20th century. With its Western-compatible harmonic basis grafted so completely onto Chinese performance practice, the sheng provides an ideal instrument through which interested composers may experiment with cross-cultural blending of the two worlds.
For many listeners, the appearance of Wu Wei onstage and bearing the sheng aloft with him as he came was both a call and a warning. “Come one, come all,” he seemed to be saying with his gesture, “and listen to hear what kind of sound comes out of this strange instrument I am holding.” Any doubts about the ability of Wu Wei to command the attention and respect of an audience or about the musicality of his chosen instrument were quickly dispelled as he gave energetic voice to an impeccably crafted and fascinatingly oblique piece. Šu succeeded in realizing the composer’s stated intention, which was to “merge the solo instrument and the orchestra into a single virtuoso super-instrument.” For his part, Wu Wei was on fire, dancing nimbly back and forth from one flexed leg to the other as he executed the rapid changes that marked this striking piece of music.
The other composition on the program was Claude Debussy’s La mer, an orchestral tone poem expressive of that composer’s exquisitely abstract late romanticism. Overall, the concert, which saw a highly trained group made up largely of Korean musicians articulate both the grandest heights of French musical culture and the cutting edge of contemporary composition, represented a glimpse of one potential future for serious music.
Congratulations and thanks to Maestro Chung, his musicians, the soloist Wu Wei, and composer Chin for granting Santa Barbara entrée into this rarified realm of musical achievement.