Music Review: Anne Midgette on NSO's Asia Tour Stops in South Korea

Hyun-Su Shin was the soloist in Goyang.
Hyun-Su Shin was the soloist in Goyang. (By Scott Suchman)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 2009

SEOUL -- The National Symphony Orchestra was welcomed to Korea with a wonderful concert hall. The auditorium at the Seoul Arts Center was warm, vivid, well-balanced and partly filled Thursday night with one of the most enthusiastic crowds the orchestra has seen yet on its tour of China and South Korea. It was a nice antidote to the battle fatigue that inevitably sets in as a tour draws to a close.

There are lots of individual stories on an orchestra tour, when more than 100 people are transported in close proximity across long distances for a couple of weeks. There are stories about exploring new cities; eating Peking duck or broccoli with maggots (yes, this happened); shopping; or sitting in a hotel room frustrated at one's inability to practice, since most of the instruments were transported separately. Teresa Bosch, a horn player, had an additional story; she traveled with her 5-year-old daughter, Julia, who was adopted from Korea and on Friday saw her foster mother for the second time since she left her care as an infant. (Julia, for the record, now thinks Korea is her second-favorite place in the world. Home is best.)

There are also the stories of the places the orchestra visits. The Seoul Arts Center sits across from the Korean National University of Arts, founded in the early '80s in an attempt to stanch the flow of the country's young talent abroad by giving them somewhere to learn at home. Remarkably, it worked; the university has quickly become a training ground for the country's leading musicians, filmmakers, actors, dancers and other artists.

Friday night, in its second and final performance in Korea, in Goyang, about an hour out of Seoul by bus, the NSO got to see an example of the homegrown talent: The 21-year-old violinist Hyun-Su Shin was the soloist in the Mendelssohn Concerto, at the presenter's request. Shin, one of Korea's rising stars, has only left Korea for a few competitions (including the Johansen competition of Washington's Friday Morning Music Club, which she won in 2003). Study abroad, in short, is no longer necessary for a career; Shin is active both in Korea and overseas. In the Mendelssohn, she showed a lovely tone and ferocity in the spots that call for it, but inconsistent emotional connection. The concerto's second movement appears to have eluded its soloists for the whole tour.

What binds all those stories together is the music. And the tour's central narrative is supposed to be that the glorious music makes it all worthwhile. But the music is as variable as anything else; sometimes it's better than at other times. The NSO, on this tour, offered a bunch of pretty good concerts, though perhaps they could have been better.

In the bigger picture, the NSO's story is about a decent orchestra looking for a spark. It hasn't had a permanent leader for some time: first Leonard Slatkin's lame-duck period, then Iván Fischer's interim tenure leading up to Christoph Eschenbach's stepping in, in 2010, as an honest-to-goodness music director. You could blame the orchestra's general looseness in performance on this lack of direction, though the group is certainly able to get its act together when it wants to. When Fischer announced he would spend the second part of the rehearsal in Seoul talking about ensemble playing, the musicians, piqued, responded in the rehearsal's first half by giving the best performance of the Mendelssohn yet, with a clean focus and gleam to the individual parts.

So what is the story of the China tour? In part, it's the story of an audience grown better-versed in concert etiquette since the previous NSO tour 10 years ago. Then, cellphones frequently rang during the performance; now, one man was ejected in Beijing for coughing. And some listeners may have grown more discriminating, and less ready to jump to their feet, as a steady stream of top Western orchestras comes through the country. Not all the audiences in China were aficionados by any means, but a journalist in China, and one in Korea, professed disappointment at the level of the NSO after concerts. The Korean audiences were generally more vocal in their appreciation: In the two-year-old concert hall in Goyang, the audience's applause made up for its lack of numbers.

The happy ending would be a story about an orchestra galvanized by a return to international touring after a seven-year hiatus, motivated to raise its own standards for itself. That story may be a little too pat for real life. But in Goyang, despite a hall so live that it muffled clean sounds in a cottony haze of reverberation, the Tchaikovsky Fifth, the final piece of the evening and of the tour, certainly was one of the strongest moments of the past two weeks. True, Fischer worked manfully in the second movement to rouse the orchestra from sluggishness, pulling the tempos to the point of unsteadiness to get the music going. But overall, the performance had an electricity and a force, and the fourth movement crackled, thundered, and elicited whoops of delight from the public. It was a nice way to bring the final chapter of this tour to a satisfying close.

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