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Gugak welcomes autumn

Major traditional orchestras and fresh ensembles gear up for colorful September programs

Aug. 30, 2023 - 16:52 By Hwang Dong-hee
“Tobyeolga: The Tale of a Troubled Rabbit” (National Gugak Center)

Autumn is drawing near and the weather sets the stage for a harmonious indulgence in the sounds of gugak, or Korean traditional music. Major traditional music orchestras and troupes are gearing up for colorful programs this September.

Taking the lead for the 2023-24 season is the National Orchestra of Korea, a traditional Korean music orchestra affiliated with the National Theater of Korea, set to grace the stage this Friday night with “Discovery” at the Haeoreum Theater.

The inaugural performance is “Discovery," a four-part series throughout the season embarking on a journey to explore masterpieces of Korean orchestral music, through the lens of musicians who have crafted their distinctive musical universes.

The National Orchestra of Korea rehearses for "Discovery." (National Theater of Korea)
Conductor Year Ja-kyung conducts in a rehearsal for "Discovery" with the National Orchestra of Korea. (National Theater of Korea)

Conductor Year Ja-kyung, one of Korea's leading female conductors, is embracing her first challenge of directing a Korean traditional music orchestra. Year's leadership spans orchestras on both domestic and international stages, including the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Korean Symphony Orchestra. She currently holds the esteemed positions of artistic director and chief conductor of the Daejeon Philharmonic Orchestra.

After making multiple visits to rehearsals, Year scoured through music selections and handpicked the pieces to be performed. She is set to conduct three traditional Korean orchestral compositions and two concertos.

The lineup of performances includes "Speech of the Wind for Young People's Dance," composed by Lee Hae-sik, which draws inspiration from the elements of traditional dance, folk music and shamanic music, and "Arirang Fantasy," composed by North Korean composer Choi Seong-hwan.

Poster for “Midday Concert” and singer Jo Sung-mo (National Theater of Korea)

The National Orchestra of Korea readies itself for another series “Midday Concert” at 11 a.m. on Sept. 7 at the Haeoreum Theater.

Since 2009, the brunch concert series has crafted a blend of familiar melodies and dynamic collaborations, with commentator Lee Geum-hee guiding the audience through each song. Light snacks will also be served.

In particular, ballad singer Jo Sung-mo, who reigned in the Korean music scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s, will join the September program and sing some of his megahit songs, “To Your Side,” “To Heaven” and “Promise,” with a Korean traditional music orchestra performance.

Poster for the 2023 Mixed Orchestra series, “Existence and Connection” and Seo Do (Seoul Korean Traditional Orchestra)

Mixed Orchestra series

The cultural stage of Seoul is set to be enriched further as the Seoul Korean Traditional Orchestra presents its first part of the 2023 Mixed Orchestra series, “Existence and Connection,” on Sept. 15.

The series titled "Mixed Orchestra" made an ambitious debut last year as a way to explore Korean music in a new way and topped the audience satisfaction offline audience survey in 2022, according to the Sejong Center.

The September performance includes two compositions premiered last year -- “Sujecheon Recompose,” which is a blend of Korean court music with Western instruments and electronic music, and electric guitar concerto “Neungge.”

Adding to the intrigue, this year's event unveils two newly commissioned pieces and fresh orchestrations of three songs by Seodo Band, which describes itself as the "creators of Joseon pop." The vocalist Seo Do will join the stage.

“Tobyeolga: The Tale of a Troubled Rabbit” (National Gugak Center)

"Tobyeolga" at National Gugak Center

The National Gugak Center is scheduled to present a changgeuk production, a traditional Korean opera performed as a play with pansori singing, titled “Tobyeolga: The Tale of a Troubled Rabbit” (literal translation) Sept. 15-16.

Having premiered in Namwon, North Jeolla Province, by the Namwon National Gugak Center in May, the production reconstructs the traditional pansori “Sugungga” in a contemporary framework.

The narrative follows a wily rabbit who initially falls victim to a trick by a terrapin. The terrapin seeks to capture the rabbit for its liver to cure the sick underwater Dragon King. The rabbit uses its wit to get away. In this reimagined rendition, the terrapin and the rabbit navigate through a series of trails and ultimately reconcile their earlier conflicts.

Poster for “Korea Rhythm Touch," pansori singers Ko Yeong-yeol (left) and Lee Bong-geun (Mapo Foundation for Arts and Culture)

At Mapo Foundation for Arts and Culture

The Mapo Foundation for Arts and Culture presents “Korea Rhythm Touch” this Thursday and Friday, featuring a vibrant ensemble of two talented young pansori singers.

On Thursday, Lee Bong-geun will take the stage accompanied by a band and a dance crew, creating a unique fusion of traditional Korean music with a Western band vibe. The dynamic fusion will include a diverse array of musical components, including drum, guitar and bass with kkwaenggwari, haegeum and taepyeongso. The dancers will perform talchum, amplified by LED lighting effects.

On Friday, Ko Yeong-yeol, who gained recognition as the runner-up on the 2020 TV audition show "Phantom Singer Season 3," will take the spotlight. Ko has orchestrated Korean traditional music with rhythms around the globe.