[In depth interview]Building communities through music
Most recently, he took an amateur chamber orchestra from Seoul Arts High School on a tour, performing at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. The tour last month ended in several standing ovations for the budding musicians and their seasoned conductor. But Gum has had little time to relax following his success; he is busy, as always, blossoming with ideas. One such bloom of an idea is to gather performers from various countries in the Pacific Rim to form what he calls the Pacific Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. He is also planning to make a series of performances at churches.
Gum’s broad-ranging ideas and passion are apparent in the variety of name cards he carries: he is the artistic director of the Euro-Asian Philharmonic Orchestra, which he also founded, and of the Provincial Philharmonic Orchestra of Gyeonggi. Gum is also a professor at Kyung Hee University’s college of music.
Noted for his prolific career, Gum’s orchestras gave some 130 performances last year, meaning he stood on the conducting platform about once every three days.
Gum fondly remembers the Ulleung Island performance in September. Unreachable by any airline, this tiny island in the eastern waters of the Korean Peninsula is truly isolated from most cultural experiences. Taking his orchestra to the island was a natural decision for Gum, whose long-standing concern for cultural equality spurs his interest in performing in less-privileged provincial areas. Many of his performances have taken place outside of Seoul for this reason. “Now is the time when we should care about something more than the gross national product,” Gum said. “We should care more about culture and a society where everyone has an equal share of culture.”
How did he manage to bring the dozens of orchestra members to the island? One day, he had a chance to deliver a lecture before military leaders, and the Air Force chief asked him about his future plans. Gum immediately talked about his Ulleung plan, and jokingly added that he could not go by sea because he gets severely seasick. He could not believe the answer of the air force chief, who offered, on the spot, to transport the orchestra and the instruments by military helicopters. Gum gratefully accepted the offer and Ulleung residents got to enjoy Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky.
For the U.S. performances by the Seoul Arts High School orchestra, Gum got conglomerates such as Kumho Asiana and Samsung Tesco to sponsor the tour. He not only conducted the orchestra but also tugged at the hearts of potential sponsors and did all the legwork to make things happen. “I learned that good things have wings to spread their meaning,” Gum said. After working as a conductor for almost four decades, Gum said he could sense the rising interest and support from business corporations, for which he said he is grateful.
Behind his success is Gum’s name and personal charisma. In his younger days, he recalls girls following him around. Noted for making classical music more accessible to broader public audiences, Gum is best known for explaining musical pieces played during performances. His concerts in the 1990s were sold-out hits. Members of his audiences included classical music novices at provincial auditoriums in Korea to former U.S. President George H. W. Bush at the Versailles Palace in France.
To get closer to the public, he left a burgeoning career in Seoul, quitting as conductor of the well-established orchestra of the Korean Broadcasting System in 1992 to join a provincial orchestra in the city of Suwon, Gyeonggi. In the late 1990s, he formed an independent orchestra that he called the Euro-Asian Philharmonic. Starting as a brave venture to establish a private orchestra without any government subsidy, Gum has successfully managed it to this day.
Gum has a reason to want to give people a chance to have contact with classical music. Gum himself grew up in an environment in which he was always exposed to classical music. While he had the luck to have a music-loving and financially comfortable family, he is aware that more people should be able to have an equal chance to enjoy music and culture.
Gum grew up watching his composer father hosting parties for music enthusiasts and playing classical music recordings. “There was music all the time at home,” Gum recalled. He chose to become a conductor by chance, when he came across a Leonard Bernstein performance on a U.S. Army broadcast in Korea in the early 1960s. “I was just stunned and thrilled by the performance and the conductor,” Gum recalled. He was then in his early teens, and from then on was determined to become a conductor. Because Korea does not offer a conducting major at any colleges, he chose to study composing at Seoul National University. Gum later went to Germany and France.
Now he is sometimes called the Leonard Bernstein of Korea; one of his recent interests is to nurture young, future maestros. That is why he came up with the idea of bringing the Seoul Arts High School to the United States to perform to study.
“An orchestra can be an exploding stick of dynamite or a serene lake, according to the way the conductor leads the players,” Gum said. He noted that Korea has a number of celebrated solo players, such as the violinist Sarah Chang and the cellist Han-na Chang, and stressed the need to have a quality symphony orchestra. “Korean students and parents tend to think that they have accomplished their goal when they enter a prestigious college,” Gum said. “But that should not be the end.”
He stressed that it is important to learn the mindset of teamwork. “The performances in the United States were a great chance for the high school orchestra to learn teamwork,” Gum said. He plans to have regular high school performances in the United States by next year.
An orchestra, to him, is like a miniature world. “It’s no use if you alone are good. You cannot shine alone in a community, and an orchestra is one good example,” Gum said. To train a young and quality orchestra, Gum believes he still has many things to do. “I am so happy and grateful to be busy doing what I want to do,” he said.
By Chun Su jin [email@example.com]