Tongyeong fest saved in the final hour

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Tongyeong fest saved in the final hour


Artists salute the audience at the opening concert of the ninth Tongyeong International Music Festival on Saturday. From left front: actress Yoon Suk-hwa; soprano Yeree Suh; pianist Choi Hee-yeon; composer Unsuk Chin; jazz vocalist Youn Sun Nah; and artistic director Alexander Liebreich. The TIMF ensemble is in the background. Provided by TIMF

TONGYEONG, South Gyeongsang - The ninth edition of the Tongyeong International Music Festival received an unexpected notification from Austria’s Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra on Thursday that it would cancel its visit to Tongyeong and would be unable to perform in the opening concert as scheduled. It was only two days before the opening of the annual festival, even though the concert contract was arranged a year ago.

It was the recent earthquake in Japan that dealt such a blow to the festival, which commemorates the late Korean-German composer Isang Yun (1917-1995) in his hometown. The festival was on the verge of launching a new era with its first artistic director, Alexander Liebreich, conductor of the Munich Chamber Orchestra. But the Austrian orchestra cancelled its appearance because its members were extremely concerned they would be affected by radioactive material from Japan, according to Kim Seung-keun, chair of the TIMF Foundation.

“Although the Austrian and German ambassadors to Korea and the head of Seoul’s Goethe-Institut sent e-mails to the orchestra to tell them that Korea is free from radiation, and that Japanese nationals have even taken refugee here, the orchestra replied that some of its members were too anxious [about the radiation threat],” Kim said.

Afterward, some media outlets reported that TIMF would file a lawsuit against the orchestra, which festival organizers have denied. They said only that the Austrians’ reaction to what’s happening in Japan was understandable, considering their own country’s geographical proximity to Chernobyl. Meanwhile, they’ve allowed audiences to apply for refunds for the orchestra’s two concerts - the opening event and another concert that was scheduled for Monday.

Uncertainty over what the opening concert would be lingered until the organizers announced at a 3 p.m. press conference on the festival’s opening day that the concert would be led by Liebreich and would feature performances by festival artists. Liebreich even asked four members of his Munich orchestra to participate in the festival and they arrived minutes before the curtain went up.

The opening concert, “Alexander Liebreich and Good Friends,” included a performance by Yeree Suh, a versatile soprano based in Germany, as well as works by world-famous modern composer Unsuk Chin. Actress Yoon Suk-hwa narrated Theo Loevendie’s “Nightingale for Narrator and 7 Instruments,” accompanied by the Asian Festival Ensemble. Jazz vocalist Youn Sun Nah performed with guitarist Ulf Wakenius, the last member of the Oscar Peterson Quartet, while the members of Munich Chamber Orchestra played Isang Yun’s “Together fur Violine und Kontrabass.”

All proceeds from the concert will be donated to the Japan earthquake relief fund, organizers said. Donation boxes are also placed in concert venues.

The new artistic director’s efforts are worthy of praise, but the concert wasn’t without problems. Each segment was preceded by brief conversations between Liebreich and the performers. When the artistic director asked questions in English, the performers answered in Korean. Some performers translated the artistic director’s questions into Korean before answering; however, only some key words popped up sporadically in English on the backdrop, causing confusion among members of the international audience. The organizers could have been more considerate about language, given the festival’s “international” title.

Moving Dimension

Each year, the TIMF is organized under a different theme originating from the titles of Isang Yun’s works. This year’s theme is “Moving Dimensions,” inspired by Yun’s 1971 symphony, “Dimensionen.”

Liebreich said he chose this piece because it embodies the connection between East and West, and between traditional and modern music. The piece marks its 40th anniversary this year.

The German conductor will helm the festival for three years. An avid fan of the scenic town, he has traveled here seven times over the past several years. At the press conference, he praised the city’s climate, food and environment, as well as Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo’s “Hahaha,” which was shot there. But he also underlined his desire to honor Yun while promoting Asian composers.

“For me, the top priority is the spirit of Isang Yun,” he said. “But this festival won’t be just about his compositions. We want to search for young composers and musicians and introduce them - not merely from Korea but also from China or Japan. I also want to combine classical, modern and contemporary music. You don’t have a music festival like this in Shanghai or Hong Kong.”

He added that he has no desire to change the nature of the coastal city, whose biggest facility for large events is the 16-year-old Kumho Chungmu Marina Resort in the Donam Tourist Complex.

“I don’t want Tongyeong to have a Hilton hotel,” he said. “Then it will attract thousands of people from Seoul, which is far from what I really pursue. Tongyeong citizens count most for this festival.”

The festival grew out of a concert organized in 1999 entitled “Night of Isang Yun’s Music.” Yun, who was born in 1917 and died in 1995, was imprisoned in 1967 for allegedly spying for North Korea. He visited the North for the first time in 1963 and returned several times while building his career in Europe. He was abducted in Berlin and taken to Seoul by the Korea Central Intelligence Agency, the predecessor of the National Intelligence Service. He was initially sentenced to life imprisonment but was released in 1969 following protests from fellow musicians such as Igor Stravinsky and Herbert von Karajan. He was eternally banned from returning to South Korea and sought political asylum in 1971 in Germany.

The festival was officially launched in 2002 in the form of a private foundation with the help of Park Seong-yawng, the late honorary chairman of Kumho Asiana Group. TIMF will mark its 10th year next year and a brand-new concert hall dedicated to Isang Yun, currently under construction near the Kumho Chungmu Marina Resort, will be completed in 2014 - two years behind schedule.

*The festival ends Friday. Concert times vary and will be held at the Tongyeong Arts Center’s Main Hall and Small Hall and at the Isang Yun Memorial Hall. Tickets range from 20,000 won ($18) to 100,000 won. For more details, call (02) 3474-8315 or visit

By Seo Ji-eun []

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