Two takes on Mahler

By Korea Herald

Seoul Philharmonic, NHK Symphony to perform Mahler symphonies

  • Published : May 26, 2014 - 20:23
  • Updated : May 26, 2014 - 20:23
When Chung Myung-whun took charge of Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra as music director in 2006, his goal was to put the ensemble on par with top-tier groups in neighboring Japan, namely the NHK Symphony Orchestra.

Regardless of whether the goal has been attained, it looks clear that playing catch-up with Japan has greatly helped the Korean orchestra to grow. There is little doubt that the ensemble’s profile and fan base, both at home and abroad, have improved remarkably over the past few years.

In an indication of this, Seoul Philharmonic signed a 10-album contract with prestigious German classical label Deutsche Grammophon in 2010, becoming the first Asian orchestra to do so, and has since released six albums.

This summer, it will be playing at London’s Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms. It is the second-ever Asian ensemble after the NHK Symphony to be invited to the annual summer music festival.

So, it will be interesting for orchestra fans here to listen to and perhaps compare the sounds of Seoul Philharmonic and the NHK Symphony as they perform great symphonic works by Gustav Mahler at the same Seoul concert hall just four days apart.

On June 1 at Seoul Arts Center, the NHK Symphony, led by conductor Junichi Hirokami, will perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in its first concert here in eight years. 
Junichi Hirokami will hold the baton when NHK Symphony Orchestra performs Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 at Seoul Arts Center on June 1. (Kumho Asiana Cultural Foundation)
Chung Myung-whun will lead the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in its performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at Seoul Arts Center on June 5. (Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra)

Then on June 5, none other than maestro Chung will hold the baton as Seoul Philharmonic takes on another Mahler masterpiece, Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection.”

A Bohemian-born Austrian composer and conductor, Mahler (1860-1911) holds a special place in the repertories of both the Seoul Philharmonic and NHK Symphony.

It was through this composer that the Seoul Philharmonic grew by leaps and bounds.

Between 2010 and 2011, the ensemble completed a full cycle of Mahler symphonies, igniting a Mahler fever among local music aficionados.

Chung, who single-handedly pushed for the Mahler cycle, recently expressed his confidence in the orchestra’s ability to pull it off.

“NHK has a long history and excellent players,” Chung said in January. “But in special projects like Mahler’s Ninth ― this might sound like I am bragging, but I think our performance was better than theirs,” the Korean maestro said, referring to the Seoul Phil’s performance of Symphony No. 9 in Seoul last August.

Chung had conducted the NHK Symphony’s performance of the particular symphony before that.

The conductor may have gained an extra boost of confidence after nailing the composer’s symphony No. 5 in a sold-out concert at Seoul Arts Center last week.

For the NHK Symphony, Japan’s oldest and most venerated orchestra, Mahler’s fourth symphony is a part of its proud history.

In 1930, four years after it was founded, the ensemble recorded the work, producing the world’s first LP recording of the work. The album, still available on CD, was also the world’s second-ever recording of a Mahler work.

Many renowned conductors have led NHK Symphony as music director, including Charles Dutoit, a Swiss now at the helm of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Ashkenazy, a Russian-born pianist and conductor; and Herbert Blomstedt, a famous Swedish conductor.

Starting in 2015, Grammy award-winning Estonian-American conductor Paavo Jarvi will take its helm.

For the June 1 concert, the NHK Symphony has prepared a full program consisting of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 C Major Op. 26, featuring Korean pianist Son Yeol-eum, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 with soprano Rosa Feola.

Tickets are priced from 30,000 won. For more information, call (02) 6303-1977.

The Seoul Philharmonic’s June 5 concert will solely feature Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which is an 85-minute masterpiece in five movements on the epic theme of death and resurrection. Soprano Kathleen Kim and mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova will join on the stage. For details, call 1588-1210.

By Lee Sun-young (milaya@heraldcorp.com)