2012 Travel Diary 11: The Tongyeong International Music Festival

Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Tuesday 27 March 2012. The Yun Isang Memorial Hall is a short walk from the ferry terminal which serves Tongyeong’s outlying islands. I had come there to attend a symposium attended by the two composers-in-residence and the Musical Director of the Tongyeong International Music Festival, which is now in its 10th year. It grew out of a festival organised in honour of Yun Isang, Tongyeong’s most famous musical son, who died on 3 November 1997. The first iteration of the festival, the Tongyeong Contemporary Music Festival, occurred in 20001. The festival became “International” in 2002.

The TIMF panel
L to R: Composer Toshio Hosokawa; Music Director Alexander Liebreich; the multi-lingual Chang Dong-seon and Composer Beat Furrer

The festival has grown in stature over the years, and in 2010 for the first time appointed a musical director. They chose Alexander Liebreich, who had already had an association with Yun Isang’s music, having recorded his first symphony. Also like Yun, Liebreich has been a relatively frequent visitor to Pyongyang, in the case of Liebriech courtesy of the Goethe Insititut.

A poster for the 10th Tongyeong International Music Festival, displayed in the window of the Yun Isang Memorial Hall
A poster for the 10th Tongyeong International Music Festival, displayed in the window of the Yun Isang Memorial Hall

While Tongyeong is the home of Korea’s most famous composer (though maybe Unsuk Chin is now threatening to take that crown), the town is not known for its musical infrastructure. The nearest cities with music colleges are Busan, Daegu and Kwangju, and much of the audience for the festival are in fact bussed in from there and other colleges and universities including of course Seoul.

The Tongyeong Arts Centre, set in a sculpture park
The Tongyeong Arts Centre, current venue for the festival, set in a sculpture park

In terms of facilities, Tongyeong has a modern arts centre built in 1996, set in a sculpture park overlooking the harbour, which has two theatres where orchestral and chamber music concerts are held, but particularly the large theatre has acoustical shortcomings when it comes to music: Sunwook Kim’s piano sounded rather muffled during his evening recital on 26 March 2012, while the Capella St Petersburg on 27 March, maybe used to singing in cathedrals with a cavernous echo, had to be supported by an electronically enhanced acoustic which sounded too artificial. It is with these shortcomings in mind that the festival organisation is constructing a brand new concert hall, right next to the Chungmu Marina Resort on Mireukdo, to accommodate the festival in future.

An early plan for a new concert hall, recital hall, shopping center and 40-storey condo development next to the Chungmu Marina Resort, originally scheduled to be completed in 2007
An early plan for a new concert hall, recital hall, shopping center and 40-storey condo development next to the Chungmu Marina Resort, originally scheduled to be completed in 2007. It never got built

This will be open from mid 2013, and be ready for the festival in 2014. Managing that concert hall, and keeping it ticking over with a programme of events in between the big festival weeks, will be an interesting challenge, and one wonders if there is sufficient local audience to support both the concert hall and the arts centre.

The construction-in-progress for the new Tongyeong International Concert Hall
What is actually being built, due for completion in 2013

But it is to be hoped that the festival itself generates the local and regional interest to sustain the costs of such new infrastructure, because the festival itself is seriously worthwhile.

Whether you are a fan of Yun Isang or not (and so far I’m open-minded about him) he is an important composer and it is certainly of value that his works are provided with a regular airing. But TIMF has been about more than Yun Isang for the past decade.

The 10th anniversary festival, titled Without Distance, perfectly captures what the festival is all about. It brings together a leading contemporary composer from the East (Toshio Hosokawa, who studied with Yun Isang in Germany) with one from the West (Beat Furrer); major performers from the East (pianist Sunwook Kim) as well as from the West (percussionist Martin Grubinger). And more importantly it provides the audience with an opportunity to get close to those stars and those composers in a way that might not be possible elsewhere – via workshops, seminars and more. The artists and composers are genuine artists in residence: they physically stay in Tongyeong during the festival and are thus physically accessible to the audience.

The official TIMF 2012 Poster - Without Distance
The official TIMF 2012 Poster – Without Distance

The programme for this year’s festival had a blend of works to appeal to all kinds of classical music lovers. Mainstream classics and early music are obviously the most accessible of the works. Included in many of the recitals was at least one work by Yun Isang; and modern and contemporary works complete the picture, with obviously the composers-in-residence getting their fair share of audience time. Possibly the most symbolic work performed this year was the premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s Meditation for Orchestra – a tribute to the memory of the victims of the March 2011 tsunami. So while there is work that will attract the hard-core music student and other followers of contemporary music, there’s plenty for the less intrepid audience.

In addition, there is a strong educational element, with the workshops in which the students participate. And in the late night string quartet concert I attended, there was a very earnest and very enthusiastic student sitting next to me in the audience, following every note of the Yun Isang and György Kurtág quartets in his scores. And together with the educational element, there is an emphasis on youth, with young composers and young audiences.

Finally of course, there is the city itself: Tongyeong, City of the Sea, is a great place to come for a festival, where you can combine culture with amazing scenery and food. My own two-day stay was not long nearly enough, and both composers in residences at this year’s TIMF said that, at a week, the Festival itself was not long enough. The director too would like to expand it, maybe involving more of the islands. But even in its present form it is a very appealing way to immerse yourself in some of your favourite classics, introduce yourself to some contemporary music, and enjoy the history, sights and flavours of a delightful destination.

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  1. The previous year, the seeds for the festival had been sown with a one-off “Night of Isang Yun’s Music” []

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