MYUNG WHUN CHUNG: A PERSONAL APPRECIATION
Myung Whun Chung is one of the world’s leading conductors. Originally placing second in the 1974 Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, he quickly turned to conducting, becoming Assistant Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1977. He was chief conductor of the Saarbrucken Philharmonic from 1984 to 1990. Debuting at the Metropolitan Opera in 1986, his international prominence took off during his appointment as Music Director of the Paris Opera (Opera Bastille) from 1989 to 1994. A Deutsche Grammophon recording artist since 1990, Maestro Chung has recorded award winning performances of many operas ranging from Verdi to Shostakovich. But it is his devotion to French composer Olivier Messiaen that also stands out, having recorded the majority of his orchestral music, often in the presence of the composer. His recordings of Berlioz and Dvorak have also received the highest praise. In 1995 he was honoured three times at the French ‘Victoires de la musique classique’, and was named ‘best conductor of the year’. He also directed the world premiere of Messiaen's last work: the Concert à quatre for four soloists and orchestra, which the composer had dedicated to Maestro Chung and the Orchestre de la Bastille.
Maestro Chung has also been honoured with Korea's most distinguished cultural award, the Order of Cultural Merit (Gold Crown) for his contribution to Korean musical life and was named "Man of the Year" by UNESCO. He has also served as Korea's Honorary Cultural Ambassador, the first in the Korean government's history.
From 1997 he has been the Music Director of the Asia Philharmonic Orchestra, from 2000 the Music Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, from 2001 the Special Artistic Advisor of Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and from 2006 Music Director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. Beginning with the 2012/13 season, Maestro Chung will become the first Principal Guest Conductor in the history of the Staatskapelle Dresden.
1. YOU WERE ONE OF THE YOUNGEST CHILDREN BORN INTO A VERY MUSICAL FAMILY. HOW DID THAT INFLUENCE YOUR OUTLOOK? DID YOUR OLDER SISTERS, IN PARTICULAR VIOLINIST KYUNG WHA CHUNG, HELP YOU PREPARE FOR, AND SUCCEED AT JULLIARD?
Yes, I came from a family of seven children, all of whom were strongly musical. I could not avoid music. I often joke that my musical training began nine months before I was born. It was good that I got to Julliard, but it is not something one prepares for. Whether you succeed in music is ultimately more personal: more a lifetime struggle with yourself.
2. AFTER PLACING SECOND IN THE TCHAIKOVSKY PIANO COMPETITION IN 1974, YOU SEEMED TO SWITCH TO CONDUCTING VERY QUICKLY AFTER YOUR GRADUATION FROM JULLIARD. IS IT THAT YOU WANTED TO SWITCH FULLY, OR BE BOTH A SOLOIST AND CONDUCTOR LIKE MANY PIANISTS OF THAT ERA.
You must realize that I had studied conducting for a long time already, and I felt that I had to make a choice. It was a very difficult decision to make but I really did not want to do both. Of course, I have always enjoyed playing the piano in chamber music with family members over the years.
3. YOU STARTED AS ASSISTANT CONDUCTOR OF THE LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC IN 1977 WHEN THE GREAT ITALIAN CONDUCTOR, CARLO MARIA GUILINI WAS APPOINTED AS ITS MUSIC DIRECTOR. WAS GUILINI'S PRESENCE A GREAT ATTRACTION FOR YOU? WHAT DID HE TEACH YOU?
I went to Los Angeles entirely for him. I auditioned and had the good fortune of being chosen. I don’t think I learned particular techniques from him or anything – he always wanted you to ‘find your own way’ – but he provided me with a great example of what a conductor should be and what he could do with an orchestra. After all, he turned a Hollywood orchestra into a wonderfully-refined ensemble with a beautifully rich and warm sound.
4. I HAVE ALWAYS THOUGHT OF GUILINI AS A PARTICULARLY GENTLE AND NOBLE MAN WITH A TRUE AWARENESS OF THE DEEPER MEANING OF MUSIC. DO YOU AGREE?
Yes, in his dedication, he was the closest thing to a priest.
5. WHAT OTHER MUSICIANS HAVE FUNDAMENTALLY INFLUENCED YOU?
There is really only one other, French composer Olivier Messiaen. As I see it now, Guilini was the priest while Messiaen was the saint.
6. I FIRST BECAME FAMILIAR WITH YOUR RECORDINGS IN A PERFORMANCE OF DANISH COMPOSER CARL NIELSEN'S SYMPHONY NO. 3 ON THE BIS LABEL AROUND 1985? THIS RECORDING IS STILL CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED AND REALLY SHOWS YOUR ABILITY TO BRING WORK TO LIFE WITH BOTH SUBTLE DETAIL AND POWER. DID YOU HAVE AN INTEREST IN SCANDINAVIAN MUSIC EARLY ON?
That was a long time ago! The story is very simple: I was to conduct the Gothenburg Orchestra in Sweden and they suggested Nielsen as a composer I could approach afresh. I just learned the symphony and recorded it. No more than that.
7. PERHAPS I HAD NOT REALIZED HOW UNPLANNED AND SPONTANEOUS YOUR CAREER HAS BEEN. IS THAT TRUE?
I think that life is guided by events and people, and that can lead you in many different directions. As a conductor, I started by learning the classic German repertoire and only made the conscious decision that I must live in Germany for some time. Perhaps Italy too, since I loved Verdi’s operas. But I certainly never conducted French opera at all until I actually lived in Paris. I could not even speak a word of French when I arrived there! I have never really pursued the goal-directed career path or repertoire specialization that many performers do. To my family and friends, I am just the ‘lucky kid’ who manages to travel wherever he wants and does whatever he wants – and actually gets paid for it.
8. BUT FROM YOUR CONCERTS AND RECORDINGS, YOU DO SEEM TO HAVE AFFINITY WITH 'NATIONAL' SCHOOLS OF MUSIC, WHETHER THEY BE FRENCH, ITALIAN, CZECH, OR SOMETHING ELSE?
That is true. When I have lived in any place for a while, I do feel a ‘connection’ to its life and history. I have eaten its food; I have drunk its wine. Somehow everything in the culture eventually melts into a unique musical ‘colour’. Then, you can understand the works you are performing. Jokingly, I often tell an orchestra to eat French food before they perform French composers – but perhaps there is something to it.
9. WHAT DO YOU NOW THINK THE ROLE OF THE CONDUCTOR SHOULD BE?
A conductor almost by definition is a strange animal; he is the only musician on stage that makes no sound yet he is responsible for everyone else’s. I often would like to think of myself as just a colleague or collaborator with the other musicians but ultimately we must come together to be the truthful messengers of the composers we play -- and make their music come alive!
10. YOU HAVE HAD SUCH A VARIED AND ADVENTUROUS CAREER IN EUROPE. WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO RETURN TO KOREA TO CONDUCT THE SEOUL PHILHARMONIC IN 2005?
I think of life as consisting of three simple parts: first, you grow up, become healthy and get your education; second, you work and build a family; then finally you ‘give back’ to the society that allowed you the opportunities initially. As I approach my 60th birthday, I feel that I am at the giving back point. The Seoul Philharmonic is part of this. Perhaps even more important, I increasingly want to help young Korean musicians succeed and educate ‘the young’ as a whole to feel the joy of classical music. Look what Gustavo Dudamel did with the young Venezuelans; it was a miracle. Of course, it is not always easy to decide which way to give back is best: there are so many possibilities! And you must be very patient, no matter what you do.
11. DON'T YOU THINK THE 'YOUNG' OF TODAY ARE VERY DIFFICULT TO CONVINCE?
I agree. When Leonard Bernstein gave his introductory lectures on music 40 years ago, he could use the term ‘sonata’ and be sure everyone would know what he was talking about; today, most young people would think it was a ‘car’. My key mission is to make the young recognize the long historical chain of genius, starting with Bach, that makes classical music (and especially modern classical music) richer and deeper than a lot of modern popular music. As a performer who believes that all music is beautiful, these days I must also be an educator and a persuader.
12. THE GRAMOPHONE MAGAZINE HAS RECENTLY CITED SOUTH KOREA AS ONE OF THE MOST FERTLE MARKETS GLOBALLY FOR CLASSICAL MUSIC. IS THERE REALLY SOME SPECIAL PASSION THERE?
I think Seoul now has something of the same musical spirit as Italy had 200 years ago. Part of this is simply the Korean make-up. Koreans are fundamentally a passionate people, they love to sing, and they channel a lot of their emotions through music. I would love to invite you to a concert at the Seoul Arts Centre. I can proudly say that you would find the audience among the best (if not the best) in the world. You can feel just how attentive they are during the performance and of course they make a lot of noise at the end.
13. YOU HAVE NOW WORKED WITH SEOUL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA FOR SIX YEARS, AND HAVE RECENTLY SECURED A VERY IMPORTANT RECORDING CONTRACT WITH DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON. WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE ACHIEVED WITH THE ORCHESTRA TO THIS POINT?
When I first came back to Korea eight years ago, there were really no orchestras of international caliber. What I initially tried to do with the Seoul Philharmonic is simply get the right fundamentals in place, pick the right musicians, and get other types of support. I have worked step by step with the orchestra serving as a partner and colleague in their development. But I have always laid down one strict rule: each performance of a given work must be better than the last. So far, this seems to have worked well, though it can get a bit tricky if the previous night’s performance was extremely good. I do always try to coax each musician to perform in a way that makes the work ‘come alive’. But there is nothing automatic about this, especially if the group has performed a work many times. Orchestras can easily become anonymous entities if you are not careful.
I think that we have made great strides over these few years even though, admittedly, there is still a way to go to match the great orchestras of London and Vienna. One highlight is our orchestra’s composer-in-residence, Unsuk Chin. Originally from Seoul, she is emerging as one of the really distinguished modern composers. You will enjoy her innovative ‘Su‘ for Chinese Sheng and Orchestra.
© Geoffrey Newman 2012