Weeklong festival salutes politically active composer

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Weeklong festival salutes politically active composer

To the casual fan, classical music and political activism might seem to be contrasting notions. One might ask: How can two forms so profoundly subjective and abstract as a symphony or chamber music possibly influence a listener's ideology? But in fact they have, especially in Korea. Music has always been used to construct and propagandize political ideals, both to praise and critique the government.

The national anthem is a classic example, often provoking a strong emotional response through its "heroic" tone and didactic lyrics. The nationalist composer Isang Yun is another good example. Long overlooked because of the political scandals in his past, Yun's achievements have only recently started to be re-evaluated through a commemorative music festival held annually for the past three years in his hometown, Tongyeong in South Gyeongsang province.

For Yun, who made his home in West Berlin during the early 1960s, classical music meant more than just symphonies. His music, often described as a solemn oratorio homage to his country, was personal and inflammatory.

Now the spirit of the maestro has come alive again through the "Third Tongyeong International Music Festival: The Prelude and the Abstraction," which kicks off Friday for an eight-day run. Previously, the festival had been known by a simpler name, "The Yun Isang Music Festival."

Yun was just one of many artists embroiled in the twists and turns of Korean political history. Thirty years ago, Yun was abducted to Seoul by the South Korean CIA of the Park Chung Hee regime, ostensibly for violating Korea's national security law. He served two years in prison, then returned to Berlin to continue his music studies. He died in Berlin in 1995 at the age of 78, having produced some 150 works of music. His admirers include the Japanese composer Yuji Takahashi and the Swedish conductor Francis Travis.

Takahashi, one of Yun's favorite students, once recalled his teacher in a newspaper interview: "I was impressed when Yun talked about the role of seonbi (scholars) in traditional feudal Korea. He said in times of peace, Korean scholars spent most of their time reading books at home. But during foreign invasions or floods, they rolled up their sleeves and helped the common folk. Yun said he wished a peaceful time would come soon to his country so that he could produce some ordinary orchestral works."

Another composer from Japan, Asao Masushida, also Yun's student, described him as "an incredibly vigorous man." Masushida said, "Yun always pushed his pencil so hard on the paper when he was composing that it would make a squeaky noise."

Back at Yun's hometown in Tongyeong, a small seaside village where tourists flock every summer for sailing and fishing, people have rebuilt a street where Yun lived and renamed it in his honor.

For the Tongyeong International Music festival, Yun's students and followers from all over the world perform the maestro's works, including Chung Myung-whun of the Radio France Philharmonic Orchestra, the Vienna Boys Choir and Ensemble Kochi from Japan.

For a full festival schedule in `English, contact the event's official Web site at www.timf.or.kr.

by Park Soo-mee

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