Our presence at the performance was a bit of a fluke. The International Sejong Soloists are a conductorless string orchestra whose 22 members (15 of whom were on stage Friday, including eight women and seven men) manage to be from eight different countries. They were founded in New York, but their artistic director, Ho Kyang, is Korean-born Julliard professor, and the group takes its name from King Sejong, renowned as Korea’s finest ruler, as the inventor of the Korean phonetic alphabet, and as a patron of the arts and humanities. This tenuous connection to Korea earned them the sponsorship of the Korean Cultural Service, an adjunct of the Korean Consulate General in New York. One way they promoted the concert was to send silly quantities of free tickets to various people at the Korean Mission to the UN, so at about 4:30 on Friday, Counsellor Hwang called me to offer me four tickets to the show. Of course, I jumped at the chance to go to Carnegie.
We expected a pleasant evening of classical music. What we did not expect was the astonishing brilliance of the performance. The Sejong Soloists’ first piece was also the most challenging work of the evening, Penderecki’s Sinfonietta for Strings, which opens with a furious “chug! chug! chug! chug!” as everyone saws away at once — an especially impressive way to start out when there’s no conductor. The piece then begins to build itself up slowly, like a construction project, with a delicate descending-triplet motif being passed from musician to musician, down the rows. This is one of those exquisite elements that can’t quite be reproduced in stereo recordings, and it was beautiful each time it happened. The piece also offered opportunities for several members of the group to perform complex solos, and they were all technically precise but rich in soul and passion. Still, what was most amazing was the cohesiveness of the group throughout this rhythmically challenging piece. It was a bravura opening, and we were hooked. “I think this may be the best chamber performance I’ve ever seen,” I told Jenny, “but I haven’t seen that many.”
“I have,” she said, “and yeah, I agree.”
Next came a couple of Stockowski orchestrations of Bach — very pretty, but not interesting enough to get the voice of Mickey Mouse crying, “Mr. Stockowski! Mr. Stockowski!” out of my head. Then the group was joined by the Taiwanese violinist Cho-liang Lin for two Vivaldi concertos — you know, the ones with the fast movement, the slow movement, and then another fast movement, where the violinist plays a bunch of arpeggios? Right, those two. They were, well, Vivaldi, which means they were pleasant enough and that I’d heard them before, even if I hadn’t. The soloist did some impressive finger-dancing, but he tended to rush and seemed inelegant against the backdrop of the extraordinary group of young musicians supporting him.
After an intermission, the Soloists (but not the soloist) returned for their final piece, Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48. This is something of a warhorse — though not as much as his concurrent composition, which he hated, the 1812 Overture — but there was nothing tired or trite about the Sejong Soloists’ performance. The Valse danced deliciously, and the Finale: Tema russo was simply gorgeous. They managed to give Tchaikovsky the lushness he deserves, but without sacrificing depth or meaning.
There was, strangely, no encore. But the performance was enough. If the International Sejong Soloists come to your town, go see them. They are an extraordinary group of musicians, and pretty much the only classical ensemble (including the New York Philharmonic) whose performances I would specifically seek out. I encourage you to do likewise.