A new look (and sound) for the Sejong CenterAt one time, the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts was the most prominent concert hall in Seoul.
Built in 1978 on the site of the Seoul Citizens Center, which had been destroyed by fire six years before, the Sejong Center was an ambitious attempt by Korea’s military government to build Asia’s largest music hall, and to make up for the loss of a major civic venue.
But over the years, the city-funded center’s reputation slipped, as newer concert halls like LG Arts Center and the Seoul Arts Center came along.
Music critics found the Sejong Center’s acoustics mediocre, especially when compared to the newer facilities. Concertgoers complained about the narrow seats. In recent years, the facility’s aging electrical system caused some to worry about the possibility of a fire. Even the hall’s design was dismissed as flimsy and modernist.
“The stage used to be too wide, compared to the size of the hall,” recalls Kim Bu-kyung, a public relations representative for Universal Ballet, which traditionally performs “Nutcracker” at Sejong. “It made the cast members look even smaller, and it made movements at the edges of the stage more difficult.”
Over time, Sejong became known as an event facility, rather than a reputable concert hall.
But Sejong’s management hopes that’s all in the past. On Feb. 28, the center officially reopened, after being closed for more than 13 months for renovations to the main hall and lobby that cost 72 billion won ($62 million).
The lobby has been remodeled. The seats in the main concert hall are several inches wider than they used to be (which meant a loss of about 800 seats). Plumbing and wiring have been replaced.
The seats in the main hall have been elevated slightly, and the ones on the floor and in the first balcony have been equipped with LCD screens, for displaying subtitles during operas.
The floor and both balconies are pitched at a noticably steeper angle. Sound-muffling carpeting has been removed, with hardwood floors where it used to be, and the walls of the main hall have been resurfaced to improve the acoustics.
But the hall’s sound quality has already earned a thumbs-down from some. Their main complaint is that the hall now has an amplification system, which they say spoils the experience of listening to classical music.
“I’ve heard that some classical musicians are grumbling about the speakers,” says Lee Kyung-ran, a performance planner with Cream Art, an event company. “You’re not hearing the music purely.”
Lee Jang-jik, a music critic for the JoongAng Ilbo, argues that Sejong could have saved the 10 billion won spent on installing the sound system if Sejong’s decison-makers had understood the importance of authentic sound to a concert hall. He says the money should have been spent on improving the hall’s acoustics.
“Of course, sound enhancement facilities are more than just volume control,” Mr. Lee wrote in a review of the renovated facility. “For audience and performers, it’s difficult to escape the mechanical feel, the lack of an ‘honest’ reflection of sound.”
Kang Seok-hong, who headed the renovations, has a different point of view. He says that because Sejong is a multipurpose hall, it needs flexibility in its sound to accomodate orchestras, string quartets, dance performances, lectures and the variety of other events that will be held there.
“The criteria sound experts use to measure acoustic quality for Sejong should be different from the ones applied to classical European music houses, or concert halls like the LG Arts Center or Seoul Arts Center,” Mr. Kang says. “We serve other kinds of needs to fulfill civic demands.”
At any rate, many people like the new Sejong, its acoustics included. Jung Wook, chief of the planning department of the International Opera Theater, which will bring “Madame Butterfly” to Sejong next week, is pleased with what he’s heard so far.
“I saw the Vienna Philharmonic and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ and the sound has improved,” Mr. Jung said.
Kim Bu-kyung of the Universal Ballet, which staged “La Bayadere” at Sejong earlier this month, is positive as well. “I heard audience members talking about the lobby,” Ms. Kim says. “It is marvelous. Now, even before you see the performance, as you walk into Sejong it feels like a performance hall.”
One thing Sejong has going for it is its size. At 3,075 seats, it’s the largest concert hall in Seoul, ahead of LG Arts Center (1,103) and the Concert Hall at Seoul Arts Center (about 2,600).
“We didn’t want a small space,” said Lee Kyung-ran, who’s bringing Spanish flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortes to Sejong in June. “Cortes traditionally performs in incredibly large stages like the Royal Albert Hall in London, or outdoors. In Korea, other than stadiums, Sejong is the best place to stage large performances.”
Some in the performance community are less concerned about Sejong’s physical facility than with its philosophy.
Since Sejong is government-funded, these critics say, it should be encouraging creative, risk-taking performances that wouldn’t necessarily make it in the marketplace on their own. But much of Sejong’s performance calendar is “outsourced” to event companies, who rent the hall for shows by performers with name recognition. One promoter who asked to remain anonymous thinks that could affect the reputation of Sejong in the long run.
“I heard from one of our sponsors, ‘Why did you chose Sejong?’” she says. “We thought, ‘It has a central location, and it’s government run.’ So we trusted them.
“But our sponsor said, ‘If you really want to see a nice performance, go to LG Arts Center or Seoul Arts Center. Sejong opened recently, but already everyone knows the quality is not that high. Most of the programs are international and established. What about innovative productions?’”
Another promoter is more blunt. “LG Arts Center has a very strong concept: They stage modern performances. Seoul Arts Center also has its own concept. Sejong doesn’t have a concept yet. It’s good to have a large stage, but the economy hasn’t improved. The timing doesn’t seem right for a theater to depend only on the size of its stage.”
What was once a projection room in the concert hall has been remodeled as a 27-seat mezzanine box, intended to be rented out to groups. It includes a private tearoom for mingling during intermission, furnished with sofas and a television set. Sejong plans to charge 1 to 10 million won for its use, depending on the performance.
The hall used to have a “VIP box,” but that was torn out during the renovations. But the “VIP stairways” that led up to them still remain, even though they no longer lead anywhere and they block the flow of traffic in the lobby. Sejong management says they were left there because the renovations had already gone over budget.
That’s essentially the same reason so many of the shows at Sejong are rental shows put on by event companies, according to management. With the Sejong already funding nine municipal performance ensembles ― including the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra ― it isn’t possible to spend money from its budget on hosting additional shows as well.
But despite its limitations, there are plenty of people who think Sejong can shine, and who cherish its place in Seoul’s culture. Mr. Jung, of the International Opera Theater, still remembers the first time he saw it.
“I was just a kid going to see an orchestra,” he says. “I remember being amazed by the sound and thinking Sejong was enormous. I hope Sejong recaptures its role as the center of culture in Korea.”
by Park Soo-mee, Joe Yong-hee
Page W8: The Sejong Center hosts “Madame Butterfly” next week.