Concert review: Alan Menken’s Beauty and the Beast in Seoul, Korea

Alan Menken’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is one of my favourite scores of his, along with other works from the Disney Renaissance, such as ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Hercules’. I hadn’t yet seen the live-action film, but when I learnt of the perfect opportunity to enjoy both the new film and the reworked soundtrack in the form of a concert coupled with a film screening, I knew I had to go. I managed to snatch up one of the few remaining seats not deeply skewed to either side and made my way to the LOTTE Concert Hall on the 26th.

I’d never been to the LOTTE Concert Hall before, but apparently, it is only a year old. Despite there being only one hall, the venue was obviously designed with luxury in mind. Entrances to the hall were fashionably named ‘gateways’ and the corridors, escalators, and toilets were all impeccable. There was even a terrace from where I could enjoy a view of Seoul. I spent a good ten minutes wandering around, observing, before I went to my gateway.

My first impression upon entering the hall was one of vastness – not length-wise, but height-wise. It’s the tallest and probably also the largest concert hall I’ve ever been to in Korea, not that I’ve been to many. But certainly, it felt bigger than the concert halls at the Seoul Arts Centre. Being ignorant of architectural acoustics, I assumed that the size of the hall would somehow translate into better sound and was initially excited. But once the concert started, I realised that the volume was too loud and found myself wishing at several points that I’d thought to bring earplugs. As it was, I had to press my fingertips lightly over my ears during the most intense parts.

The savage dynamics had another side-effect other than aural pain: they occasionally drowned out the actor’s lines. As with most concert/screening combinations, the music was played by a live orchestra while the recorded dialogue and sound effects were played separately through speakers. Although the magnifying room-acoustics worked on the orchestra, for some reason, they didn’t affect the speakers, and I missed much of the dialogue – especially since, being fluent in English, I instinctively ignored the Korean subtitles on the screen. The non-English-speaking attendees probably understood more than I did, having paid attention to the displayed text.

All of this grumbling must make it sound like it was a terrible concert, but it wasn’t. In terms of the actual music, it was an excellent experience. The orchestra, Korea Coop Orchestra, delivered a smooth performance. It was a 130-minute musical marathon they had to run (with a 15-minute intermission in between), but they pulled it off splendidly. I was particularly impressed by their sense of timing – everything they played matched the events on the screen. Being there more for the music than the film (which I’d seen many times in its animated version as a child), I remembered to glance down frequently at the orchestra and was thrilled by the musical energy I saw in the members’ silhouettes. They perfectly illustrated why I can’t stay away from concerts, no matter how dire the straits of my wallet.

As for the new soundtrack, it did not disappoint in that I’d expected it to be lesser than the original one and that lesser was what I got. I was gutted by the removal of ‘Prologue‘; it was one of the pieces I was most looking forward to hearing live. I was also disappointed by the shortened build-up in ‘Transformation’, my other favourite. I didn’t like Alan Menken’s new songs – they seemed to confirm that he’s losing his touch – and I thought that voice-wise, Emma Watson made a very ordinary Belle in comparison to the sweet Paige O’Hara.

But the original score was so strong, so genuinely solid, that all of the offences above were made positively minor. Alan Menken’s talent carried the music shoulder-high. It was a good night, one of those nights that don’t come often enough in my life, and like Ludovico Einaudi’s concert, I felt that it was worth every Korean penny.

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