Monday, 11 June 2012

Surprise in Myeongdong, Seoul: A Recital by Kyung-Wha Chung

When the name of Myeongdong comes up, most people think of a trendy shopping district with loads of things to buy. This visit to Seoul has however changed that viewpoint considerably for me with an invitation to the city's oldest Roman Catholic church,  Myeongdong Cathedral. The event was the fourth evening of a series of recitals by the legendary Korean violinist Kyung-Wha Chung. Maybe it isn't a well published fact that she had been laid off from playing for several years because of some neuromuscular or repetitive-stress induced condition. Her return was thus highly anticipated with the cathedral filled with music-lovers who worship at the altar of his Almighty, Johann Sebastian Bach. On the cards for Monday (4 June 2012) was his Third Sonata, Second and Third Partitas (BWV.1004-1006) for unaccompanied violin.  

I had been forwarned about the dodgy acoustics of the cathedral, especially the further one sat away from the front. So we tried to get seats as near as possible to the performer. 50 metres was the best we managed, and that seemed almost like some long distance away. There were echoes from the reverberant venue, for certain, and it seemed to affect the faster dances the most, which sounded muddy in parts. Chung began with the Third Partita, with its brilliant opening Prelude, and one could already sense the reverb. It needed getting used to and after a while, that did not become too much of a bother. No worries though about Chung's intonation, which was close to ideal. The tone she produced from her violin was voluminous, and the Third Sonata brought that fact out perfectly.   

It was a pleasure to witness an artist at work, no less in a cathedral. The audience was rapt with attention from start to finish. The lady sitting in front of me swayed to the music like some pendulum that it seemed a minor miracle that I did not get seasick. She was probably in a trance-like state, and when I tired of staring centrestage, the high ceilings and stained glass windows of the cathedral also provided an absorbing view. The concert lasted some 80 minutes, closing with the Second Partita. The was no intermission and Chung punctuated each work by retiring backstage for a minute or so before coming back energised for the next piece. The Chaconne, as expected, was a highlight as her control was nothing short of formidable, and the final octave in D reverberated long in the memory after the work had ended.

The applause was very warm and enthusiastic with several shouts of "Bravo!" (including yours truly), and the audience was rewarded with two encores. movements from the First and Second Sonatas. For a musical superstar, Chung's stage demeanor was one of true humility and reverence for her art, not at all showy or over-exuberant. She appeared truly happy and grateful that so many people had come to hear her. In the above photo, her all white blouse makes here look like some angel who had descended from heaven. For us listeners, that was exactly how it felt.

A treasured photo with Kyung-Wha Chung, accompaned by Pete Song and B.J.Yang from Universal Music (Korea).

I had grown up with Chung's Decca recordings of violin concertos by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Prokofiev and wasn't afraid to share that fact with her backstage. Replying in perfect English, she shared that she would soon be performing Prokofiev's First Violin Sonata ("a great work") and that her youngest brother was also a family physician. When asked whether she would consider coming to perform in Singapore, she wondered aloud whether her body (here she simuluted a frail and tremulous crone) could withstand the rigours. Judging from her just concluded performances of Bach, she would do wonderfully and be a great hit!

The bell tower and man entrance to Myeongdong Cathedral.

There is a ghostly glow surrounding the cathedral on this wondrous moonlit night in Seoul.

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