Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Asia

Author: Clemency Burton-Hill

The Concertgebouw Orchestra and Myung-Whun Chung are touring Asia – first concert tonight.

Myung-Whun Chung & the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Asia tour. ‘He is, of course, an icon in Asia,’ says the managing director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Jan Raes, of maestro Myung-Whun Chung, who will conduct the orchestra on their upcoming tour to Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul. ‘But in addition he is one of the few conductors who can create a very special sort of non-verbal connection with the orchestra. In our hall, with our German-Austrian tradition of core repertoire, they need space to hear each other. It’s almost a chamber music attitude, and he gives them the confidence to find the invention and the freedom they need.’ He chuckles. ‘Chung is not a control freak like some conductors but he has a lot of authority: he creates a very special concentration and focus that creates, in each concert, extremely unique moments.’

For Chung’s part, the enthusiasm about this unique collaboration, which has commenced with five well-received Amsterdam concerts, is mutual. ‘Every orchestra has its personality and differences,’ he says, ‘but unless I find there is a good human contact, I don’t really want to work with people. The Concertgebouw Orchestra is one of the world’s great orchestras because they are an especially warm and sensitive group of musicians; a very caring group of human beings.’ I wonder if he can define what makes the orchestra so ‘attractive’, as he describes it? ‘Perhaps working in that beautiful hall all their life – I think it brings out their natural warmth! One never knows how this thing call tradition builds and develops and becomes a lasting positive force: it is elusive, a combination of the individual musicians, the conductors, the make-up of the orchestra, the hall. But they are fortunate, as few orchestras are, to have had this long development of a tradition that is not rigid, not something that is necessarily spelled out. It is just felt by the orchestra and passed on generation after generation. That is a rare thing: there are only a handful of orchestras who can do that on such a high level.’

A grand tour like this one, Chung points out, engenders a particular intensity of experience and proximity, so it is vital the musical chemistry is right. ‘Tours are a time to get to know each other better, a chance to spend a kind of time together that one normally doesn’t get at home,’ he observes. ‘You’re literally in the same boat all the time, for the duration. In the right circumstances it furthers and deepens the relationship. Music-making is a dialogue, and the more dialogue you have and the better you get to know each other, the deeper it can become. It’s like a friendship, and if it goes well, the more you talk, spend time together, the more meaningful it is.’

Dialogue certainly underpinned the process of choosing repertoire for the Asia tour. ‘We made the decisions jointly, but the conclusion we came to is a good one,’ says Chung. Raes agrees. ‘It’s not a show programme but it is a very deep programme,’ he explains, ‘very communicative, full of melodies and incredible lines, and focusing on our core traditions and history.’ The programme, in two combinations, includes Weber’s overture to Der Freischütz, Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Brahms’ Second, as well as music from Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Kodaly and Bartok – who, as Raes reminds me, has a long association with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, having played, conducted, and composed for the orchestra often in the 1930s and ‘40s.

‘These are the treasure of treasures in the history of music!’ maestro Chung laughs. ‘There is a certain kind of repertoire that is on such a level that, no matter how many times you do it, it’s not a matter of repetition: it is a matter of continuous discovery. The reason classical musicians often feel we are on a mission to play this music is thanks to the giant, genius composers we have. In other types of music it might be difficult to name even one composer on the level of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms; I don’t know any, in the history of the world. And yet we have so many! These masterpieces, their depth and richness, is something that keeps developing over centuries and will last forever. For us to be able to play these compositions…’ he breaks off, sounding charmingly awe-struck despite his long and illustrious career exploring such masterpieces. ‘When I conduct Brahms’ Second Symphony for example it is like revisiting a person that you profoundly admire and love. So each time it is a joy. Really, we musicians are the most fortunate people.’

Audiences in Asia are also likely to consider themselves wildly fortunate. As well as one of Europe’s greatest orchestras and one of Asia’s foremost conductors, they will have the chance to hear two superb young instrumentalists: the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen – ‘the most wonderful communicator’, says Raes – who will perform Mendelssohn’s violin concerto; and Sunwook Kim, a compatriot of Chung’s. ‘He is extremely gifted,’ Raes enthuses, having recently heard his Amsterdam performances of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3. ‘And not only a great pianist but a very great musician. He has a wonderful sense of Beethoven’s rhetoric; wonderful articulation and sonority. It’s more than beautiful piano playing – it was full of invention and knowledge, which is what we like!’ Chung describes his young protégé in equally exalted terms. ‘He is one of the finest young pianists of this generation, that is clear,’ he confirms. ‘He is quite an explosive, and very dynamic player. He is highly intelligent, with a vast repertoire. One is always amazed at what young musicians are capable of, at such a young age. Having been a pianist myself I know how difficult it is to play these works, so I appreciate even more his command of both the musical and technical aspects of music. He is simply astounding.’

Whilst the Concertgebouw Orchestra has not performed in Asia for a while, maestro Chung is, of course, a regular fixture in his home continent, where he says audiences are constantly developing and refining their musical appreciation. ‘I know the audiences, especially in Seoul, my home, really well,’ he says. ‘Seoul Arts Centre is a wonderful audience; you could not ask for more. Really, it’s the best of everything: absolute concentration yet explosive reactions. Understandably the audiences in China are not quite yet as well developed, because classical music takes time, but as in every aspect in the country, that is changing so fast. When I first went to China fifteen years ago they didn’t even have a good hall; now they have hundreds. Every year I go there, the audiences are more sophisticated. It is an extremely exciting prospect to be touring there with the Concertgebouw Orchestra.’ Jan Raes adds: ‘Of course, some of this music is less standard repertoire; some will need a little more initiation. But everything we play on tour in Asia will connect with the open ears we will find there.’

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra



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