Maestro Chung upbeat about SPO’s potential

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Maestro Chung upbeat about SPO’s potential


Chung Myung-whun speaks about his upcoming tour of Europe with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra at the SPO office last Wednesday. The tour of Austria, Scotland, Germany and the Netherlands will take place in August. By Jeon Min-kyu

When maestro Chung Myung-whun, 58, took the baton for the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005, his assessment of the city orchestra was that it ranked at the bottom of the list of all the orchestras in the world. Four years later, he told reporters that the SPO had moved up a level and in a meeting with reporters last week Chung said the orchestra is now in the second-highest tier.

That shining accomplishment, many classical music observers have said, is largely thanks to the pianist-turned-conductor’s relentless effort to recruit quality musicians from home and abroad; lay off unqualified musicians through frequent auditions; raise funds through concerts; and provide orchestra members with opportunities to hone their ensemble skills.

SPO’s upcoming European tour, scheduled for Aug. 19-27, is part of Chung’s strategy to take the orchestra one step further.

“We are not one of the world’s top orchestras,” Chung said at the SPO office last Wednesday. “But while top-notch orchestras in Europe and the United States have already peaked, and few of them have the potential to grow further, we Koreans still have a great deal of room for progress.

“I am sure a successful tour of Europe will help us mature.”

In its second European tour, the orchestra will travel to four countries - Austria, Scotland, Germany and the Netherlands - to participate in international cultural festivals such as the Robeco Summer Festival in Amsterdam and the Edinburgh International Festival.

The repertoire will include Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, widely recognized as “Pathetique.” These pieces are known to be immensely difficult and philosophical and are frequently performed in Europe, which means the SPO is facing a major challenge while also taking a risk in playing them there, Chung said. Before going on tour, the orchestra will give a preview concert at Seoul Arts Center Concert Hall on Aug. 9.

Prior to the tour, the orchestra landed another breakthrough in April. It signed a contract with Universal Music Group International’s Deutsche Grammophon for two albums a year until 2015, becoming the first Asian orchestra to have such a long-term deal with the label. The first album, released on July 19, features Debussy’s “La Mer” and Ravel’s “La Valse” and “Ma mere l’oye.”

The prestigious recording label, established in 1898, accounts for more than 40 percent of the classical recordings across the globe and has contracts with world-renowned artists such as conductor Daniel Barenboim, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and pianist Martha Argerich,

Chung also has a record deal with the label, which on July 24 released a box set with a collection of his recordings as a conductor from 1991 until 2010.

In addition to leading the SPO, Chung is also the director of the Asia Philharmonic Orchestra, which is touring Korea, China and Japan from July 30 to Aug. 4. Chung became involved with the orchestra when the city of Tokyo asked him to conduct the opening performance of the Tokyo International Forum, a new cultural complex, in late 1995. He in turn proposed organizing a pan-Asian philharmonic orchestra, of which he would direct. The orchestra, which counts as members some of the best musicians in the world, was inaugurated in 1997 in the form of a performance-focused festival orchestra. Its main goal is bridging social, political and economic gaps with cultural influence.

The following are excerpts from Chung’s interview with select members of the press last week.

Q. It’s been five years since you assumed leadership of the SPO. How would you assess its progress so far?


The SPO’s first album with Deutsche Grammophon was released July 19. It is part of a larger deal for two albums a year until 2015, making the SPO the first Asian orchestra to have such a long-term deal with the label.

A. I think the orchestra has ascended to the international level. Otherwise it would have been impossible for us to do the upcoming European tour.

I would say there are roughly four levels in the hierarchy of orchestras around the globe. At the top, there are around 10 orchestras including those of Vienna, Berlin and Amsterdam. In the second level, there are 80 city orchestras at most. There are up to 200 in the third level and more than 1,000 in the last.

Before 2005, the SPO was in the fourth level. Now we have leapt into the second. But we believe that we will excel in the near future and it is important that we hold onto our dream of being in the big leagues.

How is the preparation for the European tour going?

Established musicians - me, in particular - don’t really focus on honing our technical skills through practice because we have already reached a certain level in that respect. And in music, being precise and setting a record speed when performing doesn’t necessarily lead to good results - unlike in sports, another favorite interest of mine.

When people outside Asia see us Asians, however, they mostly refer to the immense amount of time we spend practicing. But that doesn’t really create a positive image among Westerners. Japanese orchestras are renowned for assembling perfect ensembles, but... What I want to show to audiences abroad is that the SPO has moved away from stereotypical Asian music.

I want to show that our musicians can be more enthusiastic yet more free when it comes to interpretation and performance. Europeans tend to compare us to Japanese orchestras but I always tell them that the [stylistic] gap between Korea and Japan is much bigger than that between Italy and Germany.

Two young Korean pianists - Son Yeol-eum and Cho Seong-jin - took the second and third prizes at the 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition last month, 37 years after you won the second prize in 1974. What are your thoughts about their achievement?

Young Korean musicians are doing so well - it can’t compare to the period when I started in music. Cho started playing with the SPO at age 14 and is a prodigy.

But I wouldn’t say that competition is always good because I don’t really agree with the idea of classifying musicians as winners and losers. Still, it’s true that young musicians who become “winners” can obtain the chance to perform on stage. I want to help out more young musicians if fate allows.

SPO has recently released its first album with Deutsche Grammophon. How did the deal come about?

Not many recording companies are willing to release CDs with orchestras because there are so many of these products that the quantity has surpassed the saturation point. What makes the situation worse is that people are no longer willing to buy CDs.

The recording contract with DG came about by chance, though I have known the CEO of the firm for the past two decades. When I went to Europe for an opera last year I contacted him and we met in Venice. DG’s decision to invest in us was based on the long-term personal connection between the CEO and myself and the company’s need to increase sales in Asia, a rising market for classical music. Of course they also had trust in SPO’s potential.

The Asia Philharmonic Orchestra, which you have led for the past 14 years, is set to go on tour in Korea, China and Japan. What led you to become part of the orchestra?

Korea and Japan have had a difficult history. [As part of the post-colonial generation], I also agonized over how to overcome the disjunction between the two cultures because my parents often spoke in Japanese when I was young.

I really hated seeing them speak the language. But there is nothing better than music when it comes to resolving conflict.

Another reason I accepted the position has to do with fulfilling a larger humanitarian cause. The orchestra has brought Asian musicians closer, and top artists from the SPO are participating in the upcoming tour. In the longer term, I hope to see North Korean musicians in the Asia Philharmonic. Or I wish I could bring my orchestra to North Korea, which is what every major orchestra around the world aspires to do.

If someone offered me the chance to concentrate on the collaboration between South and North Korean musicians but said that I would have to quit everything I am doing now in return, I would be more than willing to do it.

The SPO is scheduled to play for the Korea National Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet” - an unprecedented collaboration between a major orchestra and the state-run ballet troupe.

I have accompanied a full ballet only once in my life - for the Paris Opera Ballet. I have been reluctant to accompany another ballet because dancers are supposed to truly understand the music but I haven’t seen many who seem like they are capable of doing so. Now, however, the KNB has shown an enormous amount of progress compared to the past. I was impressed with their achievement, so I accepted their proposal.

Also, as a member of the first-generation of Korean musicians I feel it is my responsibility to help improve the level of music in this country.

Chung Myung-whun

1953: Born in Seoul as the sixth of seven siblings (including cellist Chung Myung-wha and violinist Chung Kyung-wha)

1960: Debuted with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra as a pianist

1974: Won second prize in the fifth International Tchaikovsky Competition

1975: Earned a bachelor’s degree in piano performance and conducting from Mannes College for Music

1978: Earned a master’s degree in conducting from Julliard School of Music

1978-1984: Assistant conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

1984-1990: Chief conductor of the Saarland Radio Symphony Orchestra

1989-1994: Music director of the Paris Opera

1990: Signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon

1997 to present: Music director of the Asia Philharmonic Orchestra

2000 to present: Music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France

2001 to present: Special artistic advisor of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra

2005 to present: Artistic director and principal conductor of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra

By Seo Ji-eun []

한글 관련 기사 [중앙일보]

정명훈 “내가 프로펠러 비행기라면 너희는 제트기”

한 무대 서는 ‘차이콥스키 콩쿠르 선·후배’ 정명훈·손열음·이지혜

“나는 프로펠러 비행기고, 너희들은 제트기지. 비교가 되지 않아요.”

지난달 말, 서울 세종로 서울시립교향악단의 예술감독실. 지휘자 정명훈(58)씨의 말에 젊은 연주자들은 놀라는 표정이었다.

피아니스트 손열음, 바이올리니스트 이지혜씨였다. 물 여섯 동갑내기 둘은 지난 6월 모스크바에서 날아온 낭보의 주인공이다.음악 경연대회에서 세계 최고로 꼽히는 차이콥스키 국제 콩쿠르에서 각각 2·3위에 올랐다. 정명훈씨가 1974년 2위에 입상한 후 세계 무대에 이름을 알렸던, 상징적인 대회다. 올 경연에선 모두 다섯 명의 한국인이 상위 입상했다.

정씨는 문화 불모지로 여겨졌던 대한민국의 이름을 세계에 날린 공로로 김포공항에서 서울시청까지의 카 퍼레이드를 당시 문화공보부에게 선물받았다. 37년이 지났고, 정씨는 후배들에게 연주 무대를 선물한다. 달 11일엔 이지혜씨가, 14일엔 손열음씨가 정씨와 한 무대에 선다.

콩쿠르가 끝난 후 처음으로 한 자리에 모인 셋은 대회에 대한 각자의 추억을 나눴다. 정씨가 운을 뗐다. “사실 난 입상할 거란 생각을 못했고, 우리 선생님까지 출전을 말릴 정도였다. 그래서 콩쿠르에 꼭 입상할 수 있는 화려한 작품보단 음악이 좋은 곡들을 골라서 연주했다. 결선에서 연주한 생상스 협주곡 2번도 어렵고 화려하기보다는 아름답고 쉬워 ‘휴식’ 같은 작품으로 불릴 정도다.”

 손열음씨는 74년 당시 정명훈씨의 실황 음반을 이미 가지고 있다. 10여년 전 구한 앨범이다. “꼭 듣고 싶어서 오래된 녹음을 어렵게 구했는데, 생상스 2번 연주가 정말 좋아 여러번 되풀이해 들었다.” 피아니스트에게 ‘꿈의 무대’나 다름 없는 차이콥스키 콩쿠르의 환상을 손씨에게 심고 키웠던 음반인 셈이다. 그러자 정씨는 “사실 당시 내 연주엔 틀린 곳도 많고 불완전하지만 요즘 너희 세대 연주를 들으면 제트기 날아가듯 매끄럽다. 수준이 비교할 수 없을 정도로 높아졌다”고 말했다.

 콩쿠르 입상 이후 음악가가 걷는 길에 대한 조언도 나왔다. 정씨를 처음 만난 이지혜씨는 “한국에서 대학교를 졸업한 후 미국을 거쳐 현재 독일에 머물고 있다. 국제 경험을 최대한 많이 쌓는게 목표”라 자신을 소개했다. 정씨는 “독주만 할 때는 잘 몰랐는데, 지휘를 해보니 한 나라에서만 공부한 연주자들의 결점이 보인다. 여러 곳에서 보고 배운 연주자가 가장 많이 성장한다. 특히 연습실에만 있지 말고 밖으로 나와 세상을 봐야 한다”고 충고했다. 또 “74년 내가 콩쿠르에 나갔을 땐 1위에 오를 거라 누구나 예상했던 유력 피아니스트 안드라스 시프가 4위에 그쳤다. 콩쿠르 결과는 절대적인 것도 아니고 평생 가는 것도 아니다. 단지 시작할 수 있는 기회를 받았을 뿐”이라 설명했다.

 이지혜씨는 11일 오후 7시30분 중랑구 금란교회에서 서울시향의 ‘우리동네 음악회’를 함께 한다. 손열음씨는 14일 오후 8시 광화문광장에서 광복절 기념음악회에 함께 선다. 선곡이 특별하다. 차이콥스키 콩쿠르의 결선 지정곡인 차이콥스키 협주곡 1번이다. 음악 후배와 선배의 절묘한 만남이다. 또 이날 무대엔 이번 차이콥스키 여자성악 1위에 오른 소프라노 서선영(27)씨도 함께 선다.

 정씨는 지난달 19일 서울시향과 함께 아시아 오케스트라 최초로 도이치그라모폰(DG)에서 음반을 전세계에 발매했다. 이달 중순부터는 영국·독일 등 유럽 4개국에서 순회 연주를 한다. 37년 전 피아니스트로서 한국 음악인의 힘을 세계에 드날렸고, 이젠 교향악단의 저력을 실험하고 있다. 그리고 그가 “나보다 한수 위”라 이른 후배들이 이제 세계를 향해 날개를 펴고 있다.
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