Classical conductor Myung-Whun Chung sees beauty in cultural blends

Renowned Korean conductor Myung-Whun Chung is expected at the Athens Concert Hall this weekend for two concerts on Saturday and Sunday at the Friends of Music Hall. Chung won international acclaim in 1989 when he took over as artistic director of the Bastille Opera following the eventful ousting of Daniel Barenboim. Despite his dedication to music and the high quality of his performances, he too was dismissed from the opera in 1994 over differences with the new government. In 1997, Chung was appointed principal conductor of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome, a post he still holds, while in 2000, he returned to Paris to conduct the French Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, with which he will be performing at the Greek capital. How did you first come into contact with classical music? I am the sixth child in a family where everyone plays classical music. Therefore, have always been surrounded by this music, ever since I was in my mother’s womb! Was it hard for you to enter the world of Western classical music? I got to know this music at an age when one cannot differentiate between Greek, Korean or French music. It was the only music I knew. Furthermore, in the 50 years that I have been alive, there have been tremendous changes in my country: I dare say that more classical music is played in Korea than in most European countries. Don’t forget that Japan alone has 2,500 concert halls, 100 of which are in Tokyo. In contrast, Rome waited 60 years to acquire, just this year, proper concert halls and Paris doesn’t have even one. It’s not just a question of money. It’s about what each country chooses to invest in. What is it that makes classical music so popular in Asia? Life has changed very much in the past 50 years. The world has become a much smaller place. Today, a child, anywhere in the world, has access to what we call high quality cultural products: music, the arts, the letters. This gives rise to a greater understanding among people. I believe that in the future, music and the arts should play a more important role in bringing people together. Cultural differences You have worked in Asia, the USA and Europe. Would you say that there are differences in the way music is approached on these three continents? Not really. There are of course, differences from one orchestra to another and, of course, each country has its own features that come out whether one wants them to or not. I am completely against the idea that each country has a duty to protect its culture and that the only body that can do this is the country itself. I find this very narrow-minded. However, because of the way we have been brought up and the environment we live in, there are characteristics that differentiate one culture from another and these are also expressed in music. Do you fear that one day all orchestras will sound the same? That is the usual comment made by critics. Personally, I find what emerges from the combination of different types of music very interesting, given that each orchestra has its own special sound anyway. I believe that the reason why the particular characteristics of an ensemble become erased over time has nothing to do with the fact that musicians don’t all come from the same country. The reason is that because of the existing situation, orchestras are directed by guest conductors for the greater part of the year, instead of their permanent conductors. This of course means that orchestras have become a lot more flexible, but it is very difficult for them to develop their own individual sound without steady, long-term practice. You moved from the Bastille Opera to the French Radio Philharmonic. Are they very different? Completely! We work primarily with symphonic music, not opera. Therefore things are a lot less complicated and require less time. Also, it [the French Radio Philharmonic] is an orchestra that works very well. I had a very good relationship with the previous principal conductor, Marek Janowski, who served in the post for 15 years. In contrast, when I first went to the Bastille, I had to deal with complete disaster. It was as if a bomb had gone off! I had to make things work, sometime even by applying pressure. This time I do not have any administrative responsibilities, so I can focus entirely on the music. You have worked extensively in Italy. The orchestras of the south are rumored be only as good as their principal conductors. Is this true? In the past we used to attribute it to the climate! The truth is that the quality of orchestras in the south has not developed as much as those in Central Europe. But I have a special love for Italy because it was the first European country I really got to know. Of course, the orchestra of La Scala in Milan is on a par with the orchestras of northern Europe in the way it works. It had the good fortune to have long-term associations, first with Claudio Abbado and then with Riccardo Muti. There were never such long-term relationships [with conductors] in Rome. Therefore, I am trying to improve basic aspects, such as discipline – they are, you see, such exuberant people. Myung-Whun Chung will conduct the French Radio Philharmonic Orchestra on Saturday and Sunday at the Athens Concert Hall, 1 Kokkali & Vas. Sofias. For information and tickets, call 210.728.2333.