Orient express

KOREAN MUSIC FESTIVAL Gateway to the Orient South Bank Centre, London

It has always seemed likely that the appearance of a remarkable succession of outstanding Korean classical performers in recent years must have something to do with the rich and ancient musical traditions of their home culture. The South Bank's "Gateway to the Orient" festival gave us a perfect chance to test out this theory. Sampling two events in the series, with everything from wild folk drumming to refined string- quartet playing, interesting cross-currents were definitely the order of the day.

On Tuesday, a concert given by Korea's National Centre for Traditional Performing Arts began with the hieratic "Sujech'on" (court music), dating from before the seventh century; an ensemble clad in impressive crimson robes and awesome headgear played stringed, wind and percussion instruments in slow, stylised music that already had the hallmarks of an intense, throbbing pulsation within the melodic line, and sudden explosive drum punctuations. The same qualities were evident in "Pyongch'ang" and "Kagok" singing, the former featuring the typically Korean sound of the Kayagum zither. The "Salp'uri" folk dance, deriving from shamanist rituals, featured an unearthly dancer in flowing white, accompanied by an incredibly virtuosic bass bamboo flute. In contrast, shattering and mesmeric "Samullori" percussion music ended the first half. After the interval, lighter material included a delightful fan dance by 20 or so winsome maidens, and proceedings came to an incandescent end with "Pungmullori" folk music in which brightly clad dancers (Korean costumes feature colours that are as strong and vivid as their music) managed to cavort energetically while playing precise and very robust rhythms on handheld drums - all the while accompanied by an ecstatic and apparently seamless oboe line, like some sort of ultimate free-jazz solo.

On Friday, the excellent Kumho Asiana String Quartet demonstrated the standard of modern Korean string-playing. Any slight rough edges in Mozart's K575 quartet were soon smoothed out, and in that and Schubert's Death and the Maiden, again a very Korean feeling for rhythm and the innate quality of every single note produced fresh and compelling interpretations. A rather drastic last-minute change of programme meant that we did not have a chance to hear Isang Yun's Quartet No 4 - but we were treated to a work by the contemporary Dae-Woong Baik for Kayagum and strings, featuring soloist Hae-Sook Kim. Unfortunately, the mixture of intonations was not too successful, and with rather conventional western harmonies and none too inspired material, the effect was curiously kitschy - like Debussy on the banjo. The highlight of the evening, however, was the real Debussy's Quartet in G minor, performed with a very decided rhythmic verve and a beautifully understated intensity.

Laurence Hughes

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