A prodigal son returns to hit all the right notesTONGYEONG, North Gyeongsang province - To the casual observer, the conductor Myung-whun Chung may seem as if he took the usual path to becoming a genius musician.
Raised in Busan by a progressive mother who sent all her seven children to college amidst the Korean War, Chung made his musical debut as a pianist at the age of 7, went to Juilliard as a teen to study conducting, won a slew of awards in international music competitions and, a few years later, became the associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. His two sisters - Kyung-hwa and Myung-hwa, both well-regarded instrumentalists in Europe - helped to build the legend of the musical Chung family.
But for Myung-whun Chung, who now holds the title of music director at the Radio France Philharmonic, Santa Cecilia Orchestra and Asia Philharmonic, his natural gifts have only been an excuse to work harder.
"As a musician, I like to be able to perform better every day," said Chung, who visited the Tongyeong International Music Festival last Friday with the Radio France Philharmonic for the event's closing performance. "And that's really not easy, because it often means you can't stop trying." Perhaps that is the reason why he accepted the invitation to lead the Radio France Philharmonic, one of the most active orchestras in Paris.
The company offered Mr. Chung a position as music director with the stipulation that he would concentrate solely on artistic direction and nothing more. "It's nice because I've finally got my hands off from the administrative stuff," Chung said while on a ferry ride to the small east coast island of Tongyeong on a lazy Saturday afternoon, a few hours before the concert. "I may have to sit for a few auditions when we hire new members, but that's really about it."
The positions he had previously held didn't allow him the same luxury. In 1989, Chung was appointed as the music director of the Orchestra of the Opera Bastille - then a modestly reputed chamber in Paris, but that improved rapidly under Chung. As time went by, however, politics arose within the administration. "I was expected to take care of too many things outside of music," Chung said - a situation that, for someone whose sole ambitions are musical ("except for cooking"), was intolerable. After six years, he finally left.
There were other moments from Chung's career in which he had to compromise for his musical pursuits. Four years ago, he became the music conductor for the KBS Orchestra - perhaps an overly ambitious choice for the local state-run chamber. For the maestro, it was a chance to befriend the musical talents from his homeland and take part in its musical development.
He accepted the offer, but just three months later, Chung resigned the post - a bitter pill to swallow for the KBS orchestra, who were eager to hype the internationally known Chung. For Chung, the experience left him reflective. "The idea of me coming back home, which I had always been open to, became quite thin after that incident," he said and left it at that.
In the evening, crowds who came all the way down from Seoul to see Chung conduct pour into the theater. The maestro, who is dressed in a black tuxedo, casually stretches his arms at the audience as he enters as a sign of greeting, looks toward the top of the balcony and smiles. The show begins when he quickly nods at the performers. The music kicks off and his baton moves fast, so fast that at times one's eyes can hardly see a trace of the tips of his fingers. "God! He looks like a mad boxer, honey," an elderly woman whispered to a friend at one point.
One piece he conducted that night was "La Mer" ("The Sea") by Claude Debussy - a French composer who expressed his love of the sea through a composition of outright sensuality. Debussy once told a friend the year he started working on it, "You may not know it, but I was destined for a sailor's life."
On the ferry ride back from the island, Chung gave a similar confession. He said one of the things he greatly misses in his life in Paris is water. "Maybe because I was born near the sea, I feel something greatly lacking whenever I stay far from the water too long," he said.
But for that night in Tongyeong, the conductor lacked for nothing.
by Park Soo-mee