National Orchestra of Korea in London

National Orchestra of Korea London Barbican KMusic Festival

Friday saw the opening of the K-Music Festival 2013 with the National Orchestra of Korea giving us all a night to remember. This K-Music Festival marks a very significant connection between the UK and South Korea, and will be showcasing the best that Korean Music has to offer by bringing the essence of traditional Korean music, via the National Orchestra of Korea and Ahn Sook-sun’s Pansori performance, as well as showcasing the modern face of Korea’s current dynamic music scene.

This year marks 130 years of diplomatic relations between Korea and the United Kingdom as well as the 60th anniversary of the ceasefire of the Korean War. To mark these two important anniversaries in our shared history, the Korean Government has organized this K-Music Festival in London. – Yoo Jin-ryong (Minister of Culture, Sport and Tourism)

The National Korean orchestra was founded in 1995 and from its creation to the present, the company has worked hard on presenting the public with contemporary versions of traditional Korean music. The orchestra endeavours to globalise traditional Korean music by creating a new style that brings the traditional instruments into the modern world but still keeps the rich heritage of traditional Korean music alive. In March last year, the National Orchestra of Korea welcomed its youngest Artistic Director, Won-il, and as the fifth Artistic Director of this company he has been working hard on strengthening the identity of innovative Korean orchestral music. We were very lucky to have him as the conductor for the night for this debut London stage of the National Orchestra of Korea.

National Orchestra of Korea London Barbican KMusic Festival Won il conductor 2

At the Barbican we walked into a hall with some very iconic traditional Korean instruments already laid out on the stage, giving the audience a sense of excitement. The night began with just the wind and percussion section playing. The sounds were familiar, like the soundtrack of a film set in the olden days of Korea, it was a very recognisable sound and as more people entered onto the stage and the string section started joining in, the music built up to a much larger scale, like an epic Korean historical film. It was a very nice first piece that gave the UK audience an introduction to the very different sound of the Korean orchestra. Even though visually the set up is the same as a Western orchestra, this first piece gave us a chance to familiarise ourselves with the completely different sounds of all the individual instruments. This first piece was called Daechwita Inverse and is described as a martial music used for the march of the King or an army. The first movement aims to fill the space with dynamic sounds, and the second movement to show the entry of musicians and the distinctive sound of each instrument. It has the meaning of a prelude or Korean-style fanfare within a program of Korean orchestra music. A very fine beginning to the evening and an introduction to the instruments of traditional Korean music.

The second piece was instantly recognisable as it contained the iconic Arirang melody of South Korea. This second piece was a lot more atmospheric, with the Arirang melody throughout making the piece unmistakably Korean. However, in their performance, this familiar little melody of Korea was given an epic Hollywood style make over. The piece was adeptly called Arirang Fantasy, which had a very triumphant ending, like the happily ever-after ending of a good black and white movie.

Third came Gongmudohaga, which was developed from an old Korean song by the same name. The poem is about a woman who loses a loved one and she sings about the sadness in her heart. The piece highlights the three ideas of love, parting and death. This piece invoked a lot of visuals and through the music you could feel a whole tale being told. It began with a very twinkly sound, like the sound track from the anime Laputa. Then the haegeum brought a very grand and festive atmosphere to the piece. It became very playful, like an Asian 007 theme tune, but then things got a bit darker. The flutes presented us with a very eerie sound, quite hollow, and members of the orchestra started chanting. The epic crescendos of the beats reminded us of Fantasia and Jumanji, it’s so intense and heavy that it feels like you’re being chased and running though a dense dark forest. Gongmudohaga was a very, very strong and powerful piece.

National Orchestra of Korea London Barbican KMusic Festival Ssitgim gut 1

After quite an epic first half of the concert, we got an interval. So far the night had been very interesting; the orchestra looked and felt very familiar but the sounds were very different to what we are used to hearing from orchestras. It was also fascinating to hear the tuning of the instruments in-between the pieces. Even though the instruments were completely different to that of a Western orchestra, the tuning sounds were familiar and exactly like that of any other orchestra. Seeing the Korean orchestra in action was amazing, seeing all the zithers being plucked in unison with the same delicate movements from all the musicians was hypnotic. We also spotted that even though the uniform is exactly the same for everyone, females would have their white stripe to the left, whereas boys had their stripe to the right.

Ssitgim-gut is a shamanistic rite used to cleanse the spirit of a dead person. Since ancient times, Korean people have believed that if the deceased has a lingering desire for this world, or a grudge against it, the dead soul will keep haunting between worlds without departing this life, hurting people on earth; therefore the spirit must be guided to the heavenly realm using the Ssitgim-gut

After a more Western style beginning to the night, we were greeted with something very different and traditional after the interval. We were treated to a very special display of a ritual that is actually still practiced in South Korea. Eight performers returned to the stage in traditional shaman outfits and the set up felt quite Pansori like. A man began the ceremony with just his vocals over the sound of a very intense and continuous ringing from an instrument that looked like a metal bowl, played by stirring inside the bowl with a stick. Then a female in a very special outfit proceeded to perform the ritual.

National Orchestra of Korea London Barbican KMusic Festival Ssitgim gut 2

Onlookers expect very skilled singing and dancing of the shaman because it is commonly believed that her great performance will make the spirit completely purified in order for it to go to heaven .

The Shaman was poised and exact in her movements, it was captivating to watch. Seeing this dramatic ritual performed on stage along with such a powerful live music performance was like watching a film come to life. There was also a very effective use of lighting to add dynamics to the performance, especially for the non-Korean speaking audience; the lighting from warm to cool helped convey what was happening and the mood of the piece as it went along. Although there was a dramatic change from a more Western to a very traditional Korean style performance, stripped to the basics along with the amount of instruments dramatically reduced, the scale, sounds and atmosphere remained as grand as that of a whole orchestra and still held a strong presence on stage; a very interesting, powerful and unconventional orchestra piece.

After the Ssitgim-gut we returned to the original orchestra format and conductor Won-il gave us a piece called Nirvana. From this piece you can really see the great effort and emphasis Korean cinema puts into their film soundtracks. From the orchestral audio alone we were able to instantly recognise the emotions that were being conveyed with each note. We were able to pretty much visualize the whole story from just the sounds alone. There was a real depth to this piece as you hear all the different layers of instruments overlapping each other. According to the program this work aimed to express the religious conflicts and anxieties and the longing for release that lie within the human heart. This piece made us feel very emotional, we can’t figure out why exactly, but it just felt very moving, enlightening and mesmerising.

In the beginning we weren’t sure if we would enjoy watching an orchestra performance and we were scared that we might even find it a bit boring, but watching the performers as their hands danced in unison over the instruments and the fluttering of all the papers as the performers turned the page of their music scores was fascinating. Won-il as the conductor was so controlled and restrained in his movements, yet magnificent and excited in his actions; you could really see him passing his energy into the orchestra. There is really only one word we can use to describe it all: EPIC.

National Orchestra of Korea London Barbican KMusic Festival Won il Conductor

As we embarked on the last piece of the set list, we were treated to something with a little humour. Composed by the conductor of the night, Won-il, this piece incorporated a lot of unconventional instruments and he referred to it as having an African rhythm and a spicier sound. This piece, New Boating, started off seemingly plain and simple but before we know it, a football was introduced on stage, bouncing off drums. Then the string section started going crazy with something akin to football clappers. We even spotted those plastic hammers often seen in variety shows used to hit heads as punishment, and balloons too! It was absolutely bonkers and a fine example of how the National Orchestra of Korea was modernising traditional Korean music to appeal to contemporary audiences. This definitely got us intrigued to see what else the Korean orchestra has to offer in the future.

And so that was the end of the set list and as the performers and the conductor reap in the MASSIVE amount of applause, in true concert style, we were treated to an encore!

The first encore (yes we were treated to two encores) was beautifully warm and hopeful, and it was playful and triumphant like a festival from traditional Korean eras. It felt like we were taking a walk down the bustling streets of a period drama, people going places, selling snacks on sticks, working and being jolly. For a moment it felt very much like a 70s TV theme tune, almost Austin Powers like, but then the signature sounds of the Korean strings brought it back. The piece flowed up and down with the playful flutes really uplifting the atmosphere and then the other instruments from the wind section juxtaposing this playfulness with a strange and very strong and signature Korean sound. It was a real concoction of a mixture of styles and once again you were able to witness the very different and individual sounds of each Korean instrument. It was a very fun piece with a very familiar jazzy vibe and it even featured an awesome solo moment from the rock star drummer at the back.

National Orchestra of Korea London Barbican KMusic Festival percussion

And just as we thought our spirits could not be lifted any more, the second encore was even more beautiful and cheerful. A strong melody ran through the piece and the drummer was especially amazing. It felt like a sunrise on a beautiful day with birds chirping and farmers waking up to attend to their cattle and preparing for work in the fields (in a cheerful happy way, not the Monday morning kind of way) and yes, we are also stuck in the olden days. But this was the vibe the orchestra gave us, like some epic period film. This piece was almost like a Disney movie, like when Belle from Beauty and the Beast goes to the market. Or at the end of Jurassic park where they all drive into the beautiful sun rise and live happily ever after. It was a perfect and happy piece to end the night with.

It is said that a Western orchestra is described as sunlight and South Korean is like moonlight. It’s hard to describe music but the night was definitely highly emotional and enlightening for us all. The National Orchestra of Korea from the National Theatre in Seoul has invented a new tradition which really emphasises this rich traditional heritage of Korean music yet making it contemporary, refreshing and new. It’s nice to see that South Korea still values ensemble and has a strong sense of national identity. Apparently there are around 15 ensembles still around performing together in South Korea and keeping the passion for tradition Korean music alive.

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves that night, it was grand and magnificent, like we were taking part in a Hollywood movie. It was really amazing to see all these traditional instruments working together and seeing some very traditional yet recognisable music being brought to life. Arirang Fantasy was definitely a favourite. We left the Barbican with a cheerful spring in our step thanks to the beautifully triumphant ending piece to the night, we felt ready to take on the world! It was a glorious night at the Barbican and an epic start to the K-music Festival!

National Orchestra of Korea London Barbican KMusic Festival end

If you missed out or want to experience it all again, the wonderful people at BBC Radio 3 has recorded the whole night and you can relive the Friday night via the link here. We hope everyone enjoyed themselves as much as we did! And don’t forget this is only the beginning! There’s is more to come from the K-Music Festival so make sure you check it out: link


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