A different beatFame has always been a mixed bag for the conductor Gum Nan-se, in which the public's expectations conflict with his creative objectives. For years, he has been known as "a national conductor," which to a musician can mean either praise or condemnation; it's praise if you have ambitions beyond music and are greedy for the spotlight, but a pitfall if you want no creative constraints. For Gum, it's a pitfall.
He conducted over 60 concerts last year. "I think I used up all my energy," he says shyly in his office while chewing caramel candy after gulping down an herbal tonic, which a doctor prescribed for his fatigue. He moved into this office in the National Library building three years ago, when he offered the library's director monthly concerts in its lobby in return for free rent. Now the office is the headquarters of Gum's Eurasian Philharmonic Orchestra, where the staff holds meetings and does things like make fliers for their other shows. "The concerts we play here, I tell you, are worth much more than the rent would be," he jokes.
Despite his popularity among the among mainstream classical music fans, there have been very few people from the Korean music scene who have paid serious attention to his musical talents. In the past, some critics attributed Gum's fame to the prominence of his late father, Gum Su-hyun, an esteemed composer and music scholar. Others spoke cynically of Gum's promotional strategy of his orchestra, limiting his talents to factors that exist outside of music, such as concert programming, networking and managing his orchestra.
Perhaps part of his reputation comes from his efforts to challenge the conservative traditions of Korea's classical music world. Gum calls his group, which receives most of its funding from corporations, a "venture orchestra," and he is comfortable in admitting its corporate influence. He says that his symphony orchestra is the only one in town that doesn't receive financial support from the metropolitan government.
Accordingly, he is the orchestra's agent, negotiator and fund-raiser, as well as its director. To keep cash flowing in, Gum has to hustle. He styles himself as an influential cultural enterpriser, doing television commercials in return for stock options. He eats lunch with the vice president of Samsung Electronics and chats with corporate sponsors over cocktails at business parties, handing out fancy packages filled with brochures of his company's shows.
He holds concerts in unorthodox locales, such as company lobbies, hotels, libraries and art museums, or wherever people ask him to. He pays taxes. So when he hears people criticizing him for being "too commercial," he laughs them off before giving them an amazed expression. "Commercial? What do you mean 'too commercial'? Why shouldn't I be commercial?"
Oddly, though, if you start talking cash and power, Gum shows no interest. "I'm not the one who makes money," he says adamantly. "Businessmen make money and give it to me so I can perform." That statement may sound affected, coming from "a national musician." But people who've been around Gum for a few years will tell you that his intentions are doubtlessly innocent when he speaks this way.
Ten years ago, Gum made a bold career move by leaving the conductor's position at the prestigious KBS Symphony Orchestra to work for the Suwon Philharmonic, then a declining company, and took a huge pay cut in the process. At the time, he told a reporter, "The true value of a conductor should be measured by whether he is able to elevate his orchestra, not by which orchestra he conducts."
Indeed, in the two years he led the Suwon Philharmonic, Gum lifted the reputation of the city from a burg known for strawberries and galbi - marinated ribs - to a city known for having put on an exceptional Beethoven Festival. The orchestra covered Beethoven's entire orchestral compositions. With the slogan "Eat galbi and hear Gum's Beethoven," the festival was a big success. After seven years with the Suwon Philharmonic, he decided to move on. Soon he founded the Eurasian Philharmonic, a name he chose to symbolize the bridging of Europe and Asia through music.
Later in the afternoon, Gum walks the theater's pathways with his baton at his back, while his orchestra is in the midst of a rehearsal. At 55, Gum has the smile of a 7-year-old. You can see that smile when he performs. "He smiles during his performances to show people that he is putting everything into it to please them," said one music critic, Hong Seung-chan. "He bonds with the audience, providing both pleasure and trust."
The pianist Kang Chung-mo credits Gum as a pioneer who has made classical music accessible to the general public. "He's an animated conductor who keenly understands the interaction between the stage and audience," Kang said. Jeong Han Sol, the adman who chose Gum for the Samsung Life commercials, describes the maestro as "an eloquent, incredibly sensitive person full of expressions."
One salient quality about Gum is his knack for promoting his music and his orchestra in nontraditional ways. He has a gift for making an ordinary space a musical venue, and for choosing just the right musical works, even if they seem inappropriate on the surface. He says he likes to make his audience feel like "they are part of a movie scene."
Gum sympathizes with the typical life of a musician here in Korea. As children, they are dragged around by their mothers to private music lessons, train intensely for six or seven years, move on to Juilliard or some other American music school, study until they earn a master's, then come back to Korea to get a job at an orchestra run by the metropolitan government. When they finally get a career in the orchestra, they apply for a teaching position at a university. "It's very unproductive," he says quietly.
But a few minutes later, he perks up again when he talks about his philosophy. "I like having different menus for my shows," Gum says, employing a culinary analogy. "As a conductor I should be an expert at cooking Chinese, Japanese and Korean food. Just because I don't like Chinese food, I can't just stop cooking it. That's my strategy."
The next library concert by the Eurasian Philharmonic Orchestra will be held Feb. 22 at 5:10 p.m. in the National Library building, which is opposite the Gangnam Saint Mary's Hospital. Also on Feb. 16 at 3 p.m., the group will perform at the Posco Center. For more information, call 02-533-8744.
Timeline for Gum Nan-se
1947 Born Busan
1966 Entered Seoul National University
1974 Studied conducting with Hans-Martin Rabenstein, Berlin
1977 Finalist, International Young Conductor's Competition of the Herbert Von Karajan Foundation, Berlin
1978 Conducted Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
1980 Returned Korea to conduct KBS Symphony Orchestra
1987 Appointed music director European Masters Orchestra; conducted regularly with Moscow Chamber Orchestra
1992-99 Appointed music director Suwon Symphony Orchestra;principal conductor Deutsche Kammer Orchestra, Frankfurt, Germany
1998 Founded Eurasian Philharmonic Orchestra
by Park Soo-mee