Back to the Cold War?

Enrique Sacau
viernes, 23 de septiembre de 2005

As Western European governments keep cutting cultural subsidies, South Korea, where interest in Western classical music has blossomed since the end of World War II, seems to be eager to increase its expenditure in this area. Last summer, after visiting South Korea from 1 to 8 August, I realised how important “going West” is for a country still threatened by a nuclear power, its neighbour North Korea. Indeed, South Korean cultural policies made me feel as if I were in Germany or France... back in the 1960s.

The fact that The Economist, International Herald Tribune and CNN did not stop talking about nuclear threats over the whole week made this impression even deeper. As Christopher Hill, chief U.S. envoy to North Korea and the lead U.S. negotiator, was in Beijing trying to persuade that hermetic communist country to slow down its nuclear programs, down south we were attending a music school and festival that resembled the type of event that would have been celebrated in a Western European country back in the Cold War. Furthermore, the Great Mountains Music Festival and School (GMMFS) was devoted to War and Peace.

After the success of the first festival in 2004, the beautiful and prosperous province of Gangwon in South Korea commissioned a second event from its director, Hyo Kang. This violinist, faculty member of The Julliard School and Aspen Music Schools, was given 2,2 million dollars to organise a music school and festival the aim of which was, according to Kang, to gather in ‘Gangwon Province’s pristine mountains... to reflect on War & Peace’, provide promising music students with good tuition and to offer classical music to an audience not used to it. It seems that only one out of these three goals was fulfilled, but it was, at least, the most important.

American-leaning music school

Around 130 students made their way to Gangwon to attend the festival and music school. They were drawn by a list of good professors, most of them having an international education, mainly American, and by the opportunity to play music with an orchestra, and not just being taught how to use a bow. A bit less than a third of these students were funded by the school and all those who had to fly benefited from major discounts flying Korean Air, one of the sponsors of the festival, that cut up to 80% of the cost of the tickets.

A first look at the crowd in the dinning-hall leads the journalist to think that this music school has attracted a majority of Asian students willing to be taught by prestigious international professors. The ethnic background of the students notwithstanding, a good deal of them is already studying at American conservatories or universities. Let’s take the violinists as an example. There were sixty-three of them: one studied at Peabody, two at Curtis, two at Cincinnati and (get ready) twenty at the Julliard. Besides them, the list includes only a couple of students from German institutions and only one from an Hispanic one, Andrés Camacho, violinist from Ecuador aged 17, who studies at the Franz Liszt Conservatory in Quito.

This is not the case among viola players. Most of them are from South Korea and attend a South Korean institution - as it happens, the country of the viola professor, Chang-Woo Kang. He teaches viola at the Korea National University of Arts, Yonesei University, Dankook Universtiy, Seoul Arts High School and Sunwha Arts High School.

Aldo Parisot

The same holds true for other instruments. It seems that the music school has, generally speaking, managed to attract students who were already working, or acquainted in some way, with the professors. During the fabulous master class of the world-famous Brazilian-born cellist Aldo Parisot we heard several students, among them Mihai Marica, a 21-year-old Romanian-born cellist, who is one of Parisot's pupil's at Yale. He gave us both stirring evidence of the high level of students taking part in this music school, as well as evidence of its only weakness: its lack of promotion. Even though Mr Kang says that the festival received applications from seventeen different countries, it seems that one of the main tasks for the next few years is widening the range of countries represented if the school wants to be, as it seems to, an Asian version of Aspen, that is, a truly international music school.

Students seemed to be learning a lot and enjoying themselves a good deal as well. Violinist Andrés Camacho, finalist at the Franz Listz Conservatory in Ecuador, said that it was his professor in Quito who told him about the possibility of flying to Gangwon. Camacho, who plans to apply for the Julliard next year, found it a valuable opportunity to get quality instruction over the summer, and also to get acquainted with American students, many of them from Julliard. “I am very happy here”, he said, “since the quality of students and professors is very high”. Camacho feels that South Korean initiatives are “very stimulating: there was nothing here thirty years ago and now a great musical activity is flourishing.” Rather than saying that his main goal is becoming an internationally-acclaimed virtuoso, as we would naively expect from any teenager, Camacho aims at working hard to bring such kind of activities to Ecuador, where he would like to “establish a good tradition of music teachers.”

European-leaning cultural policies

It is true that good professors will help Ecuador to improve its musical standards. And it is also true that Cold-War like, European-leaning cultural policies might help South Korea to become a country with more musically-trained young people and an increasing musical activity. If that it is the goal, well done! However, if they want to be put on the map of musically-appealing countries and attract musical tourism and music students internationally, they will need to rethink their project.

Let’s think about a paradigmatic European case: Spain. The socialists took over in 1982, ready to carry out profound structural reforms that would lead the country to be seen and respected as a rich and well organised state. As part of this program, they planned the construction of auditoriums everywhere. Tiny cities like Santiago de Compostela (80,000 inhabitants) had their concert halls, designed by fancy (and expensive) architects and ready to seat big audiences and stage complex opera performances. All this financial effort notwithstanding, the government failed to create a plan to fill the calendar with activities and the halls with people. Moreover, they failed to project this image internationally; it is still all-too-common to hear European music buffs complain that Spain lacks a sufficient quality and quantity of concert halls.

Gangwon also plans to build an auditorium, which is to be inaugurated in 2008. Jin-Sun Kim, governor of the province, told the media that the building will cost ten million dollars and will be partly paid by Samsung. In contrast, back in August Mr Kang, director of the Festival and Music School, did not know yet which composers he would commission new works from in coming years, nor could he tell us the motto of next year's festival. As for the program, he said they want to “try new things”: “we think of a Monteverdi project ending with a staged performance casting Susan Mentzer.” The main question is: does Gangwon have or plan to have enough musical institutions to support this level of activity? Is the audience that they plan to attract mainly composed of local people (farmers, students from poor backgrounds…) as the director of the festival said in his interview with the international media? Will South Korean authorities create a plan to fill the calendar with activities and the halls with people?

There is another lesson to be learned from Europe: the unpredictability of elections. Both at Mr. Kang's interview with the international media and at the press conference after the inauguration of the festival, unanimous praise fell on governor Kim. Maestro Parisot, perhaps ironically, asked an audience made of journalists to give the governor an ovation (!) since he was the Deus ex machina who made the event possible.

Asked by whether the festival, music school and auditorium are at stake if governor Kim does not win the next elections, the governor said that “politicians cannot get rid of something that the people already want. I can guarantee that the GMMFS will continue endlessly.” His wishful thinking notwithstanding, Europeans have witnessed how cultural institutions who seemed solid as rocks fall due to unexpected cuts in budget made by newly-appointed cabinets.

In contrast with the music school, the festival does not seem as solid as it should if it is meant to “continue endlessly.” The first concert of the festival happened at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), in the border between South and North Korea. Attended by a numerous audience made of soldiers and inhabitants of the area who did not have to pay, it was frustrated by heavy rain. The chorus and the orchestra did not want to play, the audience was soaked and eventually some bold soloists accompanied by an electric piano sang popular and operatic repertoire for a while. The Sejong Ensemble, resident group of the festival, played some music as well. Even we, visitors, knew about the particularities of the weather in East of Asia over August, so why did the authorities plan an open-air concert? They did it only for the sake of political propaganda, since the probability of having rain was too high to take risks. I regret having lost the opportunity to see the world premiere of Lin Hi Kim’s One Sky, a pacifist piece that intends to reflect on the existence of only one world, under one sky on which we all have to live peacefully.

Asian musical centre

Despite being already the second concert, the event that officially inaugurated the festival happened down south, in the core of Gangwon Province. It was a varied programme by Sejong featuring Vivaldi, Mendelssohn and the world-premiere of Behzad Ranjbaran’s Awakening. This piece represented the motto of this year’s edition of the festival: peace. Ranjbaran said in his speech at the inaugural press conference that peace can be achieved through music, but then Aldo Parisot went further, saying that “if Bush played the cello and Bin Laden the viola and both played chamber music once a week together, nor war neither terrorism would exist” since “music can reach everybody” and it is “the universal language of peace”.

Behzad Ranjbaran

Rather than reflecting on the war and expressing abstract visions on world problems that should perhaps be left to politicians and scholars, the local authorities and the director of the excellent music school and rambling festival should pause and reflect. They need to think first about more specific goals, and secondly about more specific means to pursue these goals. South Korea is very far away from the main musical centres (the US and Europe) and if it wants to become a centre itself—which would be an excellent idea given the still-growing interest in classical music in the East of Asia—it has to offer a more clear project, taking the best from the US and Europe, and rejecting that which has made European models suffer a serious crisis. In the meantime, however, they are teaching students and they are doing very well. There is hope! 

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