Composition and premiere: Unsuk Chin wrote her brief subito con forza in 2020 on a co-commission from BBC Radio 3, the Cologne Philharmonic, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra; the latter gave the world premiere on September 24, 2020, in Amsterdam. This is the first performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the first Tanglewood performance.
Unsuk Chin wrote her subito con forza—“suddenly, with power”—as a miniature tribute to Ludwig van Beethoven in 2020, during which year many celebrations for the composer were planned and scuttled due to the pandemic. The score is inscribed “On the occasion of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.” Chin has said that she is strongly influenced by Beethoven’s constant search for new directions in his art and his creation of new challenges and new solutions in each of his significant pieces. The Italian expressive marking “subito, con forza” implies a sudden shift from one texture to another, a frequent even in Beethoven’s music. Chin embedded hidden references—some not so hidden—in her five-minute piece, explaining that “what particularly appeals to me are the enormous contrasts: from volcanic eruptions to extreme serenity.”
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Unsuk Chin was taught to read music by her father, took piano lessons, and aspired to be a concert pianist before focusing on composition at the National University of Seoul, where she studied with Sukhi Kang. Chin followed the example of Kang’s teacher, the imminent Korean composer Isang Yun, in deciding to further her studies in Germany, where she worked with György Ligeti. Ligeti’s example suggested to Chin the unbridled use of any number of musical styles to achieve her expressive aims, including non-Western music, as well as delight in the intricacies and puzzles of composition. She also worked intensely at the electronic music studio at the Technical University of Berlin, an experience that continues to affect her treatment of acoustic instruments. She received the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for her Violin Concerto in 2004.
One of the most accomplished and sought-after orchestral composers today, Chin has been commissioned by many of the most important orchestras in Asia, Europe, and the U.S. The Boston Symphony Orchestra co-commissioned her Violin Concerto No. 2, Scherben der Stille, for violinist Leonidas Kavakos, who this past spring gave the American premiere in Boston with the BSO and Andris Nelsons, who also performed it at Carnegie Hall. The BSO co-commissioned her orchestra piece Mannequin and gave the American premiere in November 2015, Ken-David Masur conducting; in 2011 the BSO, soloist Renaud Capuçon, and conductor Susanna Mälkki gave the American premiere of her Cello Concerto. The BSO will perform subito con forza again in Boston in the coming season. Her ParaMETAString for string quartet and pre-recorded sound was performed during this year’s Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music.
Unsuk Chin’s works are characterized by brilliant surface activity, textures of highly active individual parts, and the use of unusual combinations of instruments and extended playing techniques to create unique, pungent sounds. Her interest in the spectral harmonic makeup of sound and use of microtones results in an ethereal, otherworldly kind of effect, used in conjunction with a broader harmonic palette. These sounds are incorporated into a musical architecture with a sure sense of narrative and expressive effect. subito con forza, packing a lot of varied events into a small space, is a microcosm of the composer’s sonic imagination and delight in orchestral action.
Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the BSO’s Director of Program Publications.