Korea’s countryside discovers the classics

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Korea’s countryside discovers the classics

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HANSAN ISLAND ― Jo Yun-beom, the lead violinist for Quartet X, fiddled up a storm at the beginning of “Ggot,” a whimsical song popular among older Koreans. They replied with an ecstatic burst of applause.
“You should all sing along,” Mr. Jo yelled, raising his bow in the air. “Stand up!”
His song done, an old man crept onto a portable stage in a room full of senior citizens. Quartet X continued with its next song ― an orchestrated version of the opening theme song for the “Simpsons” and music from the well-known Italian film “Cinema Paradiso,” which has been used as background music in several Korean commercials.
It was Thursday evening, just after 6 p.m., and the last village bus had dropped off a group of residents in front of the district office on Hansan Island, a small island just off the south coast of the Korean Peninsula in South Gyeongsang province. The musicians were giving a free performance on the building’s second floor, as part of a traveling concert program funded by Arts Council Korea to bring cultural works and activities to small, isolated communities around the country.
Arts Council Korea, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, recently announced that it would invest 1.8 billion won ($1.87 million) to support cultural groups to perform in isolated townships or counties where cultural facilities are lacking.
By the time the trumpet player from the brass brand “Spirit Ensemble” started blowing the heavy blasts of “Chan Chan Chan,” the concert had turned into a wild party. The crowd, stomping and clapping along to the music, was in a frenzy.
“We don’t get this very often,” Gang Won-cheol, the chief of Hansan Township, said of the concert. “It’s like a big community party with an orchestra.”
After a while, the organizers turned on a karaoke machine, and middle-aged (and a few elderly) ladies brawled over the microphone. Over 100 people were still in the modest community hall.
Quartet X is not really a trot band ― “Ggot” and “Chan Chan Chan” are hardly part of their usual repertoire. The group was scheduled to play a Mozart string quartet at an elegant concert hall in Seoul, wearing black tuxedos and cocktail gowns, a week after its countryside performance. Spirit Ensemble, the brass brand, is also scheduled to appear at several classical music festivals.
Their program for the evening, however, focused on “easy music.”
With a population of under 1,500, Hansan is one of the country’s most culturally-deprived areas. There is no movie theater, no music hall and no library. The only thing that connects the residents with the rest of the world is television, radio and the Internet.
“We rarely get to see anything live like this,” said Lee Cha-gyeong, a 10-year old girl. “After school, we hang out at school playgrounds and play computer games. That’s about all we do here.”
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Originally, an a capella group had been scheduled to appear that evening, but the group was replaced with three young pansori (a Korean vocal style) artists a week before the concert, when Jung Sun-goo, the president of A&A, the arts management company who organized the shows, learned that most of the island’s residents are over 60.
The next day the troupe moved on, playing at Yokji Island, about an hour away from the city of Tongyeong on the southern coast. A lady in the audience said banners advertising the concert had been hung everywhere in the town for months.
For two weeks, the troupes were on tours to different islands across the country. The week before Quartet X performed in Hansan, they performed at high school gyms on three islands around Sinan County, South Jeolla province. While the roadies unloaded the lighting and sound equipment from the bus, the musicians tuned their instruments and held a quick rehearsal on a mock stage.
“We call it ‘textbook music,’” says Lee Hye-mi, an employee at A&A. “The performers played everything from Mexican folk songs to Korean pop, complete with explanations of the instruments and the history to each score. But the main motive was to have fun with it.”
The idea of traveling cultural groups has been around for some time. The Korean Film Archive has been running its “Traveling Cinema,” a program in which film technicians travel to remote towns in Korea to show popular movies to local residents, since 2000.
The National Museum of Contemporary Art has operated a similar program for 16 years, in which the institution takes items from its permanent collection to small towns across Korea. Members of the National Photographers Association regularly travel to rural towns to take funeral portraits of elderly citizens; many theater and ballet troupes also perform in isolated areas.
Few classical musicians, however, have been as interested as other performers in traveling to rural areas.
“We prepared many different songs for the people on the island, because we knew they hadn’t been exposed to classical music due to geographical barriers,” said Mr. Jo, the violinist for Quartet X. “To a certain extent I think we succeeded in bringing them closer to classical music. We were overwhelmed by their genuine passion. It was a pleasurable journey for all of us on tour.”
The group holds an average of 35 traveling shows a year for rural audiences. Eom Chang-yong, Quartet X’s manager, said the program goes a long way in helping classical musicians fulfill their cultural duties.
“It helps to popularize the genre,” Mr. Eom says. “It’s had positive effects on audiences who are culturally alienated through both geography and class. To expand the ‘sharing,’ though, it needs systematic support and corporate interest, and the ability to create a program to suit the taste and level of its audiences. It’s also critical that the organizations arranging the shows show the kind of interest and support the residents deserve.”


by Park Soo-mee
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