Berlin Double Bill (Part 1)

Lee Chun-Hee, Singer of Gyeonggi Minyo

Pretty soon after returning to Berlin, I had the chance to attend not one but two concerts of Korean folk music by LEE Chun-Hee (이춘희), Holder of the Important Intangible Cultural Asset No. 57, which is Gyeonggi Minyo, i.e. folk songs from the province Gyeonggi (중요무형문화재 제57호 경기민요 예능보유자). Naturally, this rare chance to see an acknowledged Korean singer perform abroad thrilled me—not least because I had witnessed the talent of Lee Chun-Hee not too long ago, in a pavillon on the premises of Seoul’s smallest palace as night fell… or so I thought (it had been someone else entirely).

Also, the two concerts were held at two venues completely different in size, atmosphere, and technical equipment: the first one (July 21st) at the Korean Cultural Center, the second one (23rd) at Dahlem Museums. A great opportunity to compare—albeit in a sketchy way—the influence of place on performance. So let’s start with the first show!

Thursday night before seven it was raining like it had been the whole day. The location, Koreanisches Kulturzentrum, had recently moved (that is, more than a year ago) from its rather austere location next to Landwehr Canal, somewhere between Bahnhof Zoo and Nollendorfplatz, into a newly built highrise at Potsdamer Platz, maybe not the most comfortable place in unified Berlin, still one of the most accessible. On two floors there are exhibition spaces, a library, class and conference rooms.

People were already flooding into one of them when I arrived, looking for their assigned seats. Thanks to a (free) email-reservation, I found my name somewhere in the back rows but with quite a nice view and sat down, browsing the professionally printed program notes.

The room was bursting with people when, after a short introduction by a staff member, Lee Chun-Hee entered the small stage—in fact merely a straw mat and cushions on the ground and a folding screen full of hangeul-calligraphy. She thus sang on the same level as the audience, not more than two or three yards in front of the first row.

Backed up by four musicians (janggu, daegeum, haegeum, and piri), all members of the Folk Music Group of the National Gugak Center (국립국악원 민속악단), Lee presented various minyo, japga, two different kinds of arirang, and other folk songs, a highlight being “Hoesimgok” (회심곡, “Song of Repentance”) which is based on chanted Buddhist scripture (hear an audio clip at youtube). Accompanying herself on the small brass gong kkwaenggwari (꽹과리, probably onomatopoetic), she finished each verse with a series of high metallic bangs.

Lee Chun-Hee performing at Koreanisches Kulturzentrum

In between, while Lee changed backstage from one hanbok into the next, members of her band played a daegeum sanjo (a solo improvisation on the bamboo flute) and some other solo and duet pieces.

As Lee performed many of the songs without a break, the first part passed by quicker than I thought. While the lyrics were hard to understand, mostly due to the specific singing style (especially of the japga) unrelated to usual sentence melodies, the program provided helpful—rather general but bilingual—explanations about origin and content of some of the songs.

During the intermission I had a nice chat with a colleague who himself organised minyo concerts last May. He praised the acoustics in the rather small room which made electric amplification unnecessary but also remarked that a singer of Lee’s caliber shouldn’t make the long trip for not more than two concerts. With regard to the astonishing number of people who attended tonight’s concert—I would guess about a hundred and fifty—, a small tour through Germany might have been quite a success.

However, audience reactions were quite different to those I witnessed in Korea (see again the palace concert). Given the intimate setting, I had expected at least a few chuimsae by people acquainted with Korean traditional music. But people remained calm, as in a chamber concert of, say, a Brahms quartet. I should not complain (and I am not!), as I remained silent, too, until the end of each section when loud applause made the walls shake, repeatedly.

I did not take enough money to buy one of the CD-sets sold in the lobby. I went slowly towards the exit, through a group exhibition on “Memory and Recovery” (Bericht über die Erinnerung und Heilung, 기억과 치유에 관한 보고서, 1st floor, ended July 25th) that united four young artists (Yun Ju HWANG [황윤주], Young Wook SONG [송영욱], Se Eun AN [안세은], and You Kyeong OH [오유경]), still amazed at this large, lighty (well, now glowing in evening blue) place. I had been here once in April 2010, a few days before leaving for Seoul, but never had a chance to take a closer look.

So Hee Kang, Es tut so weh! ("It hurts so much!")

Before leaving, I also took a look at So Hee KANG‘s (강소희) exhibition of paper dolls (Damals war das so…, “Back then it was like this…”, ground floor, ended July 29th). Made of hanji (lit. “Korean paper”), these small scenes of work, meals, or childrens’ games evoke nostalgic thoughts—the artist states that she “scavenged my memories and returned to my childhood”. She hopes to make this craft better known in Germany—high aims that have not yet been rewarded for many other cultural assets, despite best efforts and occasionally filled concert halls. Unfortunately.

Getting wet in front of the building, I am delighted to see—and, while knowing that nit-picking doesn’t help, still can’t help noticing—the bunch of pungmul performers dancing and drumming in the showcase, falsely labeled as samulnori.

[Stay tuned for the second concert at Dahlem Museums!]

— 21 July 2011 (木)

  • Chun-Hee Lee, Traditionelle Vokal- und Kammermusik aus der Gyeonggi-Provinz, Südkorea, anlässlich des 60. Gründungsjahres des National Gugak Centers Seoul, Koreanisches Kulturzentrum (Berlin), 21. Juli 2011 (Do), 19–20.30 Uhr.
  • Chun-Hee Lee, Traditional Vocal and Chambermusic from Gyeonggi province, South Korea, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the National Gugak Center Seoul, Korean Cultural Center (Berlin), 2011-07-21 (Thu.), 19–20.30 h.

About Jan Creutzenberg

Jan Creutzenberg, friend of theatre, music, and cinema, comments on his performative experiences in Seoul and elsewhere.
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