Philadelphia Orchestra in Asia: Burning Violins

Audiences at the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts in Seoul were ambushed at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts by a pair of peculiar, 15-foot musical instruments in the lobby, made up entirely of video monitors. On those monitors, all kinds of stuff is going down, sometimes with larger images spread across several screens mosaic style, sometimes with screens repeating the same images only positioned diagonally or upside down. At times, violins are seen burning - literally.

This is the work of Nam June Paik, the late Korean video artist who was an infamous presence in avant-garde New York circles in the 1960s and ‘70s. In later years, he came home to create, among other things, an installation for the Seoul Olympics consisting of 1003 video monitors. The Sejong Center installations are enigmatically titled “Tiger Lives,” one piece resembling a giant banjo, another looking like a violin whose curves have been squared. After visiting them over the two nights the Philadelphia Orchestra played at Sejong on its tour of Asia, I never saw the same image twice. Some were color coordinated to create a total effect. Other were about content: In addition to the burning violin imagery, the bust of some famous composer was covered in a white custard-y substance with red cherry syrup suggesting some sort of brain surgery in progress - until Paik licked it off. I loved it.

Nam June Paik 1

Yet, what’s this stuff doing here? To make us music nerds feel hip and edgy? Or to jolt us out of our hopelessly retrospective mindset? I prefer the opposite viewpoint, that the most widely heard classics mold our world in ways that they didn’t in their own times - if only because modern technology allows older music to be so well disseminated as to take a prevalent place on the cultural landscape. Classical music is at times omnipresent, whether in some of the classier TV commercials, or on the Seoul subway, where a dramatic snippet of Mozart heralds the pre-recorded announcements of each stop.

Positioned in the lobby, Paik’s video sculptures are put before an intelligent, educated audience of concert goers who probably won’t have their guard up - they’re there for music, not modern art, and are all the more likely to have fresh, undefensive responses as a result. Viewers are less likely to wonder whether or not they “get” the video installation because there’s no prior investment. And what could be a better mindset for encountering modern, perhaps difficult art?

The orchestra’s second concert at Sejong went as well as can be expected in a hall with not-so-responsive acoustics, though ones that were clear enough to get a good idea of what Dutoit hath wrought. In Stravinsky’s Firebird and The Rite of Spring, Dutoit showed how he is continuing to consolidate his own, lower-fat version of the Philadelphia sound - one that lends itself to great flexibility, not to mention subtle gradations in color that Dutoit employs with a highly purposeful sense of expression. He’s writing a new chapter in the orchestra’s artistic history.

- David Patrick Stearns