Total Immersion: Unsuk Chin – review

Barbican, London

At 49, the Korean-born, Berlin-based Unsuk Chin has reached the level of eminence signified by a day of Total Immersion, the BBC Symphony Orchestra's series championing major contemporary figures. Two sizeable works got their UK premieres. The first, in the London Sinfonietta's lunchtime contribution under Stefan Asbury, was Gougalon, a 15-minute, four-movement suite illustrating Chin's childhood memories of down-at-heel street entertainers in suburban Seoul.

Like all of Chin's music, it is most notable for its use of colour: vivid, extravagant and technically assured to the point of virtuosity. In this instance, there is something old-fashioned about the result, like a Rimsky-Korsakov showpiece with an extra century of orchestral know-how thrown in. But the brilliance of its externals is matched by a strength of idea that makes the result genuinely fascinating. Chin's breakthrough piece, the sparkling Acrostic Wordplay – sung with flawless deliberation by Yeree Suh – and the denser Double Concerto, with pianist Andrew Zolinsky and percussionist Owen Gunnell (both excellent), completed a worthwhile programme.

The BBCSO's evening event showed them on wonderfully assured form under Ilan Volkov, who led them through four weighty and varied pieces. New to the UK was Šu, a concerto for the sheng, or Chinese mouth organ – a description that scarcely does justice to a cumbersome but immensely versatile instrument played with staggering command by Wu Wei. Its potential for complex chords was fully explored in a work whose terrifying climax felt like a headlong rush to destruction.

Flanking the more established Violin Concerto, the exquisitely sensuous choral-orchestral Kalá and the punchy and eventful Rocana further demonstrated the extraordinary range of Chin's sensationally accomplished writing.


George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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