A cultural Olympics at Pyeongchang

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A cultural Olympics at Pyeongchang


At first we struggled, as foreigners mistook Pyeongchang as Pyongyang. Daegwallyeong in Pyeongchang county was also unknown to foreigners, and they found it strange to pronounce. So the dream to create an international music festival in a natural setting, like the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, could have ended in just that - a dream. Now, however, the Great Mountains International Music Festival and School at Daegwallyeong is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Today, the festival has emerged as a major classical music event, attended by musicians from around the world.

I attended the Great Mountains Music Festival last week and listened to Paganini and Dvorjak at the Alpensia Concert Hall. Clara-Jumi Kang, who played violin for the Paganini guitar quartet, had previously attended the music school operated by the festival; now she is a star, having won the Indianapolis and Sendai International Violin Competitions in 2010. Dozens of former students are now teaching younger musicians.

Juilliard professor Kang Hyo set the foundation of the festival, and sisters Chung Kyung-wha and Chung Myung-wha took over in 2010, using their international network to expand it. As of last year, 11 world premieres, seven Asian premieres and four Korean premiers have been performed.

The finale of the concert on Saturday evening was Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” a piece of music that offered me courage and comfort in my youth. After the concert, I had the chance to have beer with the founders of the festival, Kangwon National University honorary professor Kim Kyung-sun, the university’s School of Art professor Lee Kang-soon, and former Chuncheon YWCA president Lee Hui-soo.

The three founders, who knew each other from Bible study, heard in 2001 that the cities of Pohang and Jeonju were trying to invite the Sejong Soloists to create a music festival, but they thought Gangwon should host the world-famous musicians. Professor Kim’s elder sister was Kang Hyo’s classmate from Seoul National University and the director of the board of the Sejong Soloists. At first, they chose Yongpyong county as the site and held a preliminary festival in 2003. Later, they moved the festival to the Alpensia Resort, where Pyeongchang was seeking to hold the Winter Olympic Games at the time. In 2004, the first Great Mountains Music Festival was held in Pyeongchang.

It is truly amazing that Pyeongchang - which is usually associated with mountains, rivers, potatoes and the novella “When Buckwheat Flowers Bloom” - has become home to a world-class music festival. Some locals complain that the festival is catering to people from Seoul and they would rather hear Korean singers like Lee Mi-ja or Shim Su-bong. However, they are not aware of the tremendous brand effect of the Great Mountains Music Festival. Thanks to the classical music festival, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics can proudly call itself a cultural Olympics.

The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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