Korean presence: Unsuk Chin in the spotlight

Concerts 16.02.2023

Facéties, humor, nonsense and virtuosity are all facets of Unsuk Chin's sound universe. The composer is honored at the festival Présences de Radio France (February 7 to 12) where fifteen of her works will be performed.

"My music is a reflection of my dreams", says Unsuk Chin, a Korean composer living in Berlin, whose opera Alice in Wonderland, premiered in Munich in 2007, is a reflection of her attraction to the imaginary world of childhood and the world of wonder. If she does not neglect any aspect of composition, from the voice to the instrument, from the solo work to the large orchestra, from concert music to electronic music, which she approaches with the same high standards, the idea of theatricality, the presence of characters, embodied or not, and the gesture that she likes to show, are found in most of her works.

Game of simulacra and offbeat worlds

Cosmigimmicks (2012) for ensemble is an imaginary theater linked to pantomime that the musicians of the Ensemble C Barré under the direction of Sébastien Boin interpret with the appropriate delicacy. The world of plucked strings (harp, mandolin and guitar) is combined with a prepared piano, percussion and violin: with gestures and minimal sounds, this music of the ephemeral enchants us. To associate in the same concert the alert manner and the humorous register of the Basque Mikel Urquiza seems obvious. The two pieces on the program are taken from his latest CD, recently released by L'Empreinte digitale. My voice is my password is written for six mixed voices, those of the Neue Vocalsolisten of Stuttgart who share the stage with the Ensemble C Barré. Urquiza poetizes everyday life, starting from "verbal platitudes" (call center clichés) that he puts into polyphony to conceive joyful madrigals that are as sparkling as they are offbeat. The same trivial sources (the texts of his spam) that Urquiza makes his honey generate Songs of spams where voices and instruments joined together animate four small superbly regulated playlets.

Too little known in France, the Prague composer Martin Smolka is a searching soul who is reminiscent of George Crumb. Jonah seven chants, commissioned by Radio France, brings together three female singers (members of the Neue Vocalsolisten) and the Ensemble C Barré adding the cymbalum to its instrumentarium. Smolka explores the microtonal universe of string instruments (cymbalum, mandolin, harp and guitar) whose pitches disappear in favor of timbre. The story is taken from the Bible, which tells in seven numbers the adventure of Jonah welcomed in the belly of the whale. The beauty of the voices (Johanna Vargas, Suzanne Leitz-Lorey and Truike van der Poel) competes with the refinement of the colors and the originality of the construction. The instrumental gesture and the litanic manner of the voices underline the ritualistic aspect of a music as refined as it is fascinating.

Double game with electronics

Studio 104 welcomes the ensemble Next, made up of student performers from the "Ars Diploma" program at the CNSMD de Paris. The young Reika Sato is alone on stage in Double Bind? which Unsuk Chin wrote in 2006-2007 for the violinist and compatriot Hae-Sun Kang. The piece brings us back to the theater where gesture takes on its full importance. The violinist sits on a high chair maintaining an ambiguous relationship with her instrument, between sensuality (caressing the neck) and violence: the instrument is shaken, struck, triturated... The electronic part (Jacques Warnier and Rémi le Taillandier at the controls) takes an active part in this strange mimodrama.

"When I write electronic music, I want to keep absolute control of all the parameters, to work with the sound to the extreme," says Unsuk Chin. This requirement is also exercised in his string quartet with electronics Parametastring, an uncompromising study of the sound of the string quartet, organically interweaving recorded sounds, live electronics and instrumental sources.

This reciprocity can also be heard in the piece by the young Korean Seong-Hwan Lee (still a student at the CNSM in Paris in the classes of Frédéric Durieux and Yan Maresz) who entrusts the instrumentalists with metal percussion instruments (plates and meta-triangles) serving as an interface between the two worlds. Written for violin (Aino Akiyama), cello (Nanami Okuda), piano (Albert Kuchinski) and fixed sounds, L'oiseau dans le temps II given in world premiere shows a great technical mastery and a richness of the sound components within a writing where the electronics model the space and draw the dramaturgy

In Wonderland

At the auditorium, the orchestra concert with the Radio France Philharmonic conducted by the Dutch conductor Antony Hermus, familiar with Unsuk Chin's music, closes the festival with two major vocal pieces by the composer, between which is inserted the premiere of Francesco Filidei's Cello Concerto, I Giardini di Vilnius, co-commissioned by Radio France. The rhombuses whistle, the birds chirp and the air circulates in the ranks of the orchestra within this piece where the listener is moved from one context to another. Throughout this "windowed" form, a guarantee of assumed heterogeneity, the labyrinthine journey, which lacks the Ariadne's thread, sometimes borders on confusion. The cello (Sonia Wieder-Atherton) struggles to find its place, adding its own layer of sound to an environment that does not care to welcome it. By dint of strolling through the gardens of Vilnius, one ends up getting lost!

By Unsuk Chin, The Silence of the Sirens ("even more dangerous than their song," according to Kafka!) combines excerpts from James Joyce's Ulysses (the eleventh chapter Sirens) and Homer's Odyssey sung in ancient Greek. The 2014 piece is written for Barbara Hannigan and her extraordinary vocal abilities, pushed to the extreme, the composer says.

Soprano Faustine de Monès, who came from the audience, took on the role with disconcerting agility, assuming the twists and turns of this insolently virtuosic and duly bewitching writing alongside a very focused "Philhar. Facetiousness, humor and phantasmagoria are at work in Puzzles and games from Alice in Wonderland, a suite for soprano and orchestra taken from Unsuk Chin's opera, whose eight scenes are here reduced to eleven miniatures. Between Folksongs (one thinks of Berio) and operatic scenes, the writing abounds in vitality and orchestral finds, exploiting all the richness of the timbres summoned, harpsichord, mandolin, accordion and other percussion instruments always skilfully selected. A soprano as agile as she is luminous, the Australian Alexandra Oomens shines within the orchestra in these superb pages combining brilliance, virtuosity and meticulous detail.

Sad disappointment...

A technical problem with the Grenzing organ of the Auditorium prevents us from discovering Théo Mérigeau's piece, Hoquetus animalis. It should be noted that the general concert scheduled for the day before could not take place due to the strike notice filed by the two orchestras of the Maison ronde on Saturday, February 11. The four world premieres on the program of the flagship concert of the Orchestre National de France, cancelled on the same day and for the same reasons, are also gone: Ramon Lazkano's long-awaited Mare Marginis for piano and orchestra,Héloïse Werner 's new piece for soprano and violin, the Radio France commission to Thomas Lacôte, Chambres claires for orchestra, and Unsuk Chin's Alaraph-Ritus des Herzschlags, a piece whose ink is barely dry, "traversed by images or impressions linked to traditional Korean music"... Decisions that have weighed on the smooth running of this festival, on the morale of the programmers as well as that of the artists, and deeply disappointed the vast majority of the audience.

Michèle Tosi

Article photo © Christophe Abramowitz
Concert photos © Stéphane Loison

Festival Présences, Paris, Radio France, 12-02-2023
14h30 Unsuk Chin (born 1961) : Cosmigimmicks for small ensemble ; Mikel Urquiza (born 1988) : My voice is my passworld for six voices; Songs of Spam, for six voices and small ensemble; Martin Smolka (b. 1959): Jonah, seven songs, for three female voices and ensemble, based on The Book of Jonah / The Bible (CM). Ensemble C Barré, direction Sébastien Boin.
16h30 Unsuk Chin (b. 1961): Double Bind? for violin and electronics; Parametastring, for string quartet and electronics; Seong-Hwan Lee (b. 1996): The Bird in Time for violin, cello, piano and electronics (CM). Soloists of the ensemble Next: Reiko Sato and Aino Akiyama, violin; Senghyun Kim, viola; Yi Zhou and Albert Kuchinski, cello; Nanami Okuda and Arzhel Rouxel, piano/keyboards; Jacques Warner and Rémi le Taillandier, computer music production.
19h00 Unsuk Chin (born in 1961): The Silence of the Sirens, on a text by James Joyce and Homer, for soprano and orchestra (CM of the new version); Puzzles and games from Alice in Wonderland, on texts by David Henry Hwang and Unsuk Chin after Lewis Carroll; Francesco Filidei (born in 1973): Giardini di Vilnius, concerto for cello Faustine de Monès, Alexandra Oomens, sopranos; Sonia Wieder-Atherton, cello; Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France; conductor Antony Hermus.


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