‘House cleaning’ at the Seoul Philharmonic

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‘House cleaning’ at the Seoul Philharmonic

Notable symphony orchestras around the world have often been dominated by charismatic conductors, or perhaps vice versa. In the case of Chung Myung-whun, who was officially appointed as an artistic adviser to the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra yesterday, it is the conductor who will be dominating the reputation of a dying orchestra.
Under a three-year contract, Mr. Chung, 52, who has led some of the world’s musical powerhouses, including the Opera de Paris-Bastille and the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome, will be joining the team as a musical adviser for the first year, then as music director for the following two years.
At a press conference yesterday at City Hall, Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak said Mr. Chung’s appointment will provide “an important transition” in shaping Seoul’s image as a world cultural capital.
Indeed, the orchestra under Mr. Chung will go through intensive changes within the next few months.
Through auditions, the entire orchestra will be replaced by new members, including both local and foreign musicians, with those in senior positions personally selected by Mr. Chung. By the end of April the team will embark on a series of rehearsals for an inaugural concert under Mr. Chung, which may take place as early as August.
It has hired two new conductors from abroad ― Bundit Ungrangsee, an emerging Thai conductor, and Arild Remmereit from Norway ― who will join as guest conductors this year, then as assistant conductors starting in 2006.
Mr. Chung, who is based in Paris, said he would stay in Korea to work with the orchestra for about 12 weeks a year.
Seoul’s mayor also accepted Mr. Chung’s offer to build by 2007 an opera house in Nodeulseom, along the Han River, which will mainly be used to accommodate classical concerts by the Seoul Philharmonic.
A senior city government official declined to comment on Mr. Chung’s compensation, but he said it was “based on the average salary of world conductors with similar reputations as Mr. Chung’s,” which is roughly $30,000 to $40,000 a week. According to an official at the KBS Symphony Orchestra, the average income for conductors of local orchestras ranges from 60 million won ($60,000) to 80 million won a year.
With Mr. Chung’s appointment the city has granted unprecedented autonomy to classical musicians in a local symphony orchestra.
The city’s aggressive attempt to raise the orchestra to new prominence isn’t a suprise to local music industry insiders.
The Seoul Philharmonic, which is funded by the city, has gone through a rocky period in the last few years, with the dismissal of chief conductor Gwak Seung and other management problems. For more than a year the chief conductor’s position remained open, and the orchestra’s seasonal concerts were criticized for their extremely poor quality.
“I always knew there were many young talented musicians in Korea who could provide a stable foundation for a good orchestra,” Mr. Chung said yesterday, “but [the orchestras] didn’t get the support they were supposed to get. But for the first time since I have done business with Korean orchestras I was offered a set of conditions that made me feel confident.”
Mr. Chung has had a stormy past in his relationship with an orchestra in his homeland.
In 1998, he was appointed a conductor of the KBS Symphony Orchestra, but left the post four months into a three- year contract due to personality conflicts with management.
Will Mr. Chung live up to his reputation to enhance the quality of the Seoul Philharmonic to a world standard?
Within a period of 10 years, he says that will be the case, setting the Tokyo Philharmonic, which has a creditable reputation in the international music community, as a significant competitor to the Seoul orchestra.
“With a combination of systematic support, talented individuals and an experienced conductor,” he said, “the conditions for a good orchestra could be met.”

by Park Soo-mee
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