The Seoul Philharmonic – a young orchestra with “an extraordinary sense of adventure”

by Philip Gowman on 7 September, 2014

in Conference reports, Event reports and reviews, Western classical music

Chung Myung-whun with Wu Wei at the Albert Hall

Chung Myung-whun with Wu Wei at the Albert Hall on 27 August (photo: BBC / Chris Christodoulou)

On 27 August, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra made its Proms debut, the first Korean orchestra to play at the famous music festival. At the Pre-Prom talk earlier that evening across the road at the Royal College of Music, Michael Fine and Hyunjin Park of the Seoul Philharmonic, and Dr Haekyung Eom of Liverpool University, talked about Western classical music in Korea.

According to Fine, the oldest Western classical orchestra in Asia is the Tokyo Philharmonic, which is now 101 years old. The Seoul Philharmonic started in 1947 as a naval band; but the the current incarnation of the orchestra dates back 10 years ago to when the then mayor of Seoul, future president Lee Myung-bak, decided that Seoul deserved to have a world-class orchestra. Chung Myung-whun was engaged as conductor, and global auditions were held to bring in top-class intrumentalists to upgrade the standard of the players.

Chung Myung-whun conducts the Seoul Philharmonic on 27 August (photo: BBC / Chris Christodoulou)

Chung Myung-whun conducts the Seoul Philharmonic on 27 August (photo: BBC / Chris Christodoulou)

With the Korean watchwords of 빨리 and 제일, “unbelievably, in 10 years we have an orchestra that is at the epicentre of the classical music world – the BBC Proms.” They also have a number of Deutsche Grammophon recordings under their belts. Mr Fine attributes this success to a combination of Buddhist tolerance, Confucian approciation of hierarchy (very important in an orchestra) and Protestant Work ethic (though surely the Koreans would work just as hard if the US missionaries had never come).

Symbolically, after performing Beethoven’s Ninth at the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak, Maestro Chung presented him with his baton, intending thereby that Lee was now responsible for safeguarding the arts in Korea.

Chung Myung-whun at the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak

Chung Myung-whun at the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak – just before passing his baton to the President

The stereotype of an Asian orchestra is that they are note-perfect but lacking in passion. With the Seoul Phil, the passion seems to come first. Even when recording the core repertoire, which to a Western orchestra might seem routine, the Seoul players come to it afresh.

With the Korean younger generation, classical music is “cool”. Michael Fine recounted an occasion when a Korean visitor had gone to a concert in Holland and asked “is this a special concert for old people?” – the audience for classical music in Korea is so much younger.

But maybe because Western classical music is relatively new in Korea, Koreans sometimes have an inferiority complex about the standards of their music. Michael Fine recounted a story of a third-tier orchestra from Germany doing a tour of Korea and receiving a rapturous reception: for the local audience, a foreign orchestra was the epitome of sophistication, when in fact the Seoul Philharmonic is much more accomplished.

The orchestra plays a wide range of repertoire. “It’s important for a young orchestra to play the core repoertoire,” says Fine, “but we have a series called Ars Nova curated by Unsuk Chin. We have masterclasses with young composers and we commission new work. We have an extraordinary sense of adventure.”

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