Home > Culture > Features

print dictionary print


Every summer in Seoul you can count on rain, blistering heat and outdoor concerts by the Seoul Pops Orchestra. The difference this summer is that the World Cup is in town.

Thus far the World Cup has been full of upsets and excitement. The Seoul Pops Orchestra conductor Ha Sung-ho has been part of the action.

Instead of its usual once-a-month performances, the Seoul Pops Orchestra is performing once a week. Instead of wearing dark suits, the orchestra wears soccer uniforms -- moisture-wicking T-shirts, baggy shorts, knee-high socks and even cleats. Instead of wearing a white-tie tuxedo, the conductor wears a referee's uniform, complete with a whistle.

And this from a gentleman who says, "I don't particularly like soccer," then adds, "But it's the World Cup."

Mr. Ha may not be a soccer fan, but his peers describe him as "a fiery artist full of ideas." Since the orchestra began in 1988, it has brought music to all reaches of Korea.

Performed in prison? Yes.

Performed in the Blue House? Yes.

Performed at the Demilitarized Zone? Yes.

Performed for Guus Hiddink? No.

For an orchestra, a soccer coach is usually not the barometer of musical success. But for an innovative conductor who dreams of a new Korea, who sees music in color, who has been in the Guinness Book of World Records for conducting the most outdoor concerts, who is able to play every instrument in his orchestra and demands his musicians give him passion and perfection, Hiddink is a lesson in life.

"We need more people like Hiddink," Mr. Ha says. "He makes the team play as a team, he chooses players for their ability, not their connections, and he never veers from his goal."

Faint in the distance, a woman's voice is raised in a joyous song. The path toward the voice is dusty and cobbled. The architecture surrounding the path is gloriously old. Trees provide flickering shade from the afternoon sun. The Seoul Pops Orchestra is rehearsing for their evening show, but a crowd has already gathered.

The Seoul Pops Orchestra began holding free open-air concerts every third Saturday in Deoksu Palace in 1991. The outdoor concert idea began as a method to reach children. Parents came along with the children, and soon it became a weekend family outing. The concerts are usually held from March to October. During the World Cup, the concerts have been taking place every Saturday. The next two concerts will be at 7:30 p.m.

The orchestra plays movies scores, classics and pop music, sometimes accompanied by opera singers and other well-known musicians. Last year, each concert drew an average audience of 6,500. Other than the 700 won entrance fee to the palace grounds, the concert is free of charge. It is an orchestra for the people.

More people pour into the court as the afternoon turns into evening. The performers turn in their instruments to take a break after rehearsal. A troupe from Kyung Hee University takes the stage to perform tae-kwondo to pounding Korean pop music.

Ha Sung-ho started playing music at the age of 10. At first, like many child musicians, he played because his parents prompted him. But he soon found that he enjoyed music.

His first instrument was the piano. "I hated it," he says. So he switched to violin. Then guitar, saxophone, and so forth. He now has 32 instruments at home and ruefully says, "I can play all of them, but I have not mastered all of them."

Mr. Ha studied music in the United States in the 1970s when he saw Seiji Ozawa, then the conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra. "I heard their fusion of music and was blown away," he says. Once back in Korea, he began the Seoul Pops Orchestra with the idea of making classical music accessible to the public.

So the blend of taekwondo with dance and pop music is oddly in line with the vision of the orchestra. When the taekwondo performance ends, the team of soccer-uniform-clad musicians takes the stage.

The first song is Mozart's overture to "The Marriage of Figaro." Two minutes in, the audience is clapping. Mr. Ha moves with energy, slashing and pointing his wand, bending his knees and rising to his toes. Before starting the next piece he says, "As an adult, there's not a lot in recent Korean history to be proud of. But our soccer athletes have been good for the country. I'm so happy to see teenagers proud of Korea."

He guides the audience into three rousing chants of "Daehan Minguk," then says, "Now we'll play music to get us into the top eight."

For another song, Mr. Ha makes an open invitation for any foreigner to take the stage. "It's a chance of a lifetime to conduct the Seoul Pops Orchestra," he says. Sergui Katalkin, a Russian pastor, walks up, shakes hand with the cellist, who is dressed in a Russian uniform, and then conducts the "Radetzky March."

After the performance Mr. Ha says, "When I'm onstage, I'm in heaven. But once I'm off stage, I'm in hell, and I can't remember anything about my music."

When asked about the chances of Korea beating Spain on Saturday, he says, "I'm conducting the 12th man, how can we lose?"

by Joe Yong-hee

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)