The Telegraph
By Ivan Hewett
April 11, 2011
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Total Immersion: Unsuk Chin, Barbican, review
Korean composer Unsuk Chin's music evokes a magical, fantasy world. Rating: * * * *

Many composers nowadays have an “extra-territorial” feeling about them. Whatever passport they may carry, their music sounds completely globalised; it borrows from everywhere and every era, and is rooted nowhere. Few composers show that quality more starkly than Korean composer Unsuk Chin, the focus of the BBC’s Total Immersion Day on Saturday. Her music is glittering, always on the move, never settling into a graspable image – apart from those moments when it’s seized by dream-like immobility. It evokes a magical, fantasy world, often constructed with cunning musical mechanisms like those of the great aural magician among modernists, György Ligeti (who taught Chin in the 1980s).

Which is all well and good, but has Chin’s own voice really emerged from under Ligeti’s shadow? And could I take an entire concert of ear-tickling Alice in Wonderland-ish whimsy? As if to stifle my doubts, the first piece – entitled Kãlá, Sanskrit for time – launched off in a mood of very French-flavoured melancholy. On a blind test I might have guessed the first minute was from an unknown French tone-poem from around 1905. Then the bass Adrian Peacock began to intone a nonsense poem, in a dark low monotone reminiscent of Tibetan Buddhist chanting. Soprano Sarah Tynan eventually joined in, lending a surprisingly affecting, rich tone to something apparently aloof and inscrutable. Suddenly all this was torn away to reveal the voices of the BBC Singers, suspended on a mysterious static chord.

Chin’s music is peppered with these moments of hallucinatory strangeness, and to come off they need utmost delicacy and precision from the performers. It has to be said the immense forces gathered here, marshalled under the alert eye and lithe beat of Ilan Volkov, did the music proud. The two concertos were both superbly served by their soloists. Violinist Jennifer Koh caught the mercurial, dancing quality of the Violin Concerto perfectly, flinging herself into the moments of folk-like vigour with such abandon she lost a fair amount of bow-hair. In the concerto for the delicate reedy Chinese mouth organ, soloist Wu Wei often had to dominate a large orchestra in full flood; impossible, you might think, but he managed it.

Throughout, the BBC Symphony Orchestra played with affecting care. At length, the unremitting French-symbolist gorgeousness of the sound-world did become wearing. And I did wonder whether the orchestra had to be quite so large. But Chin can touch the heart – as in the final movement of Kãlá, where mournful layers of descending lines beautifully caught the poem’s sad meditation on mortality.

Hear music from the Total Immersion Day on the BBC iPlayer.

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