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by Seth Colter Walls

August 21, 2014

Unsuk Chin's Drama-Packed Compositions

by Seth Colter Walls  |  August 21, 2014

Born in South Korea, composer Unsuk Chin moved to Germany in her 20s, where she studied with György Ligeti. You can hear the grand old master’s influence (especially a quasi-mechanical playfulness) in Chin’s Six Piano Etudes. But in her larger-scale works -- such as the award-winning four-movement Violin Concerto from 2004 -- Chin builds on the harmony-stretching examples of her modernist forerunners. Throw in a dash of the kinetic power displayed by contemporary Finnish school composers, a little French spectralism and some of Chin’s own melodic talents, and you’ve got an original musical sound — one that is filled with technical daring, but that can also communicate emotionally. It’s a world that’s easy to get lost in.

Not a great deal of Chin’s formidable output has been recorded officially, which is a shame. But there are signs that may be changing: Last year the New York Philharmonic presented her showstopping “Gougalon: Scenes from a Street Theater” as part of their live-recording series. And now that Deutsche Grammophon has brought out a new album of Chin’s concertos, there’s never been a better time to start exploring her work.

Click play on our attached mix, and first you’ll hear Chin’s 1997 Piano Concerto, which shows her talent for both solo instrument pyrotechnics (see the driving first movement) and slowly unfolding fields of orchestral commentary. It’s followed by the stark theatrics of the six-movement “Gougalon,” as performed live by the New York Philharmonic. Then, in what amounts to perhaps the stunner of the composer’s career thus far, we have "Šu," which is written for Sheng (a Chinese mouth organ) and an occasionally raging orchestra.

From there, we have her Six Piano Etudes, and then that award-winning Violin Concerto. The first movement begins slowly, on open strings, before launching into a slashing middle section and soloist-taxing climax. The second movement is more delicate-sounding and also features swelling chords that are the obvious creation of a skilled orchestrator. The short, third-movement scherzo features pizzicato effects (a return to some of the chattering fields of Ligeti-style chaos), while the finale restates and transforms material from the opening movement, before ending on a beguiling bed of strings.

Next month, the New York Philharmonic will present a new clarinet concerto from Chin. While you look forward to hearing that live performance, you can get up to speed with our mix, which also features bracing orchestral statements like “Fantaisie Mécanique” and the electronic-aided “Xi.” Enjoy!

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