Rattle, Berlin Aim To Tempt Appetite For Musical ‘Tapas’

Chief conductor Simon Rattle applauds composer Unsuk Chin, whose ‘Chorós Chordón’ was premiered by the Berlin Philharmonic as prelude to an Asia tour. (©Monika Rittershaus)
By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN — If some new pieces of music stretch the same ideas over an unwelcome period of time, Unsuk Chin’s Chorós Chordón leaves the listener wanting more. The 11-minute orchestral work, premiered by chief conductor Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic on Nov. 3, hovers in the air with delicate otherworldly colors and then suddenly draws to a close. Chorós Chordón is one of a series of short musical “tapas” commissioned from major contemporary composers by Simon Rattle. The challenge, then, is to design a program that does not relegate it to a distant memory.

The title of Unsuk Chin’s new work is Greek for “Dance of the Strings.” (Facebook)

The South Korean Chin, who is Berlin-based, notes in her commentary that she took inspiration from “cosmological concepts and scenarios from the beginning to a possible end of the universe,” although she did not set out to illustrate them with concrete references. Chorós Chordón, Greek for “Dance of the Strings,” is nevertheless inherently dramatic, opening with crackling silk paper and ethereal strings before sounds ricochet around the orchestra in pointillist fashion. A protegé of Ligeti, Chin abandoned twelve-tone music after arriving in Germany from her native Seoul to develop a more personal, imaginative language. Her works acknowledge European modernism while willfully charting their own course with fluttering, at times ornamental sounds.

Toward the middle of Chorós Chordón, the orchestra swirls as if creating a tunnel through space. As the instrumental layers become more dense, the musical ideas start to meander until a more structured approach returns, as if particles were separating and coalescing. Muted percussion and wispy, teeming violins yield to surrealist, glassy harmonies that recall Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland. The strings then create a chorus of glissandi, only to slide upward and break off abruptly.

‘Chorós Chordón’ will be featured at concerts in Seoul and other Asian cities.

The Berliners, touring Asia later this month, will perform Chorós Chordón at stops in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, Kawasaki-City, and Tokyo, along with the rest of the Nov. 3 program.

With the onset of Rachmaninoff’s brilliantly scored Third Symphony, the Philharmonic players shifted effortlessly from the exacting technical demands of Chin’s music into Rachmaninoff’s late Romantic idiom. First performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936, the symphony combines nostalgia for the homeland with Western exuberance. The opulent strings of the Berlin Philharmonic only underscored the work’s rich, fateful melodies in the opening movement, particularly in the low range. The brasses picked up the long, winding principal theme with superb intonation and rounded tone.

The Scherzo section of the second movement, which includes tarantella-like rhythms, had just enough bite before subsiding into melancholy, affirming Rachmaninoff’s own recollection that after fleeing his native Russia in 1917, he “wandered through the now foreign world like a spirit.” The following Allegro is deceptively upbeat, with a Dies irae motive creating a fugato midway through the movement before the swirling opening theme returns. Rattle drew sighing, passionate phrases from the strings until the twittering winds ushered in the final stretch.

The entire concert will be broadcast at the orchestra website. (©Monika Rittershaus)

Stravinsky’s Petrushka, with its colorful instrumentation across all sections, is also an appropriate vehicle for showing off this well-oiled machine of an orchestra. In what is surely not a coincidence, the instrumentation of the 1947 version performed here is nearly identical to that of Chorós Chordón, save for having one less oboe and one more bassoon.

Petrushka would benefit from being performed more often to choreography as originally intended. But a concert performance also allows for attention to the architecture of the music itself, from the collage-like technique that emerges in the first scene to the mesmerizing, almost minimalist patterns that re-introduce the fair in the fourth tableau. All soloists, from the colorful flute of Emmanuel Pahud to the slinky bassoon of guest player Guilhaume Santana, stood out for their technical prowess and expressive purpose.

Rattle’s driving tempo at times glossed over the playfulness of the music, detracting from the sense of rhythmic weight needed in the “Dance of the Gypsy Girls,” but he hit his stride in the steadier “Dance of the Coachmen.” A festive atmosphere reigned before the orchestra faded down to Petrushka’s final, ghostly laugh.

The concert video, currently being edited, will soon be available in the Digital Concert Hall. The Nov. 11 concert from Hong Kong will also be broadcast as a time-delayed live stream via Digital Concert Hall.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin, contributing to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. As a doctoral candidate at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, she is writing about the compositional legacy of Kurt Weill.