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Classical music rises to meet its moment :Ensemble Ditto and the PyeongChang Music Festival & School highlight Korea’s top musicians

June 26,2017
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Left: Tickets to Lotte Concert Hall’s one-year anniversary concert that feature Chopin Competition winner Cho Seong-jin on Aug. 18 sold out in one minute. Right: Cellist Chung Myung-wha performs during last year’s PyeongChang Music Festival & School at Alensia Resort in Pyeongchang, Gangwon. This year’s program kicks off July 18 and runs until Aug. 8. [LOTTE CONCERT HALL, COMMUNIQUE]
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[JONO LEE]
Popularizing classical music has been a headache for industry insiders worldwide for decades. Korea too has been struggling for years to bring the genre forward, to be enjoyed as much as the hugely popular K-pop, or at least shed the image that it is a boring and difficult to access art form reserved for the bourgeois.

Perhaps the efforts are slowly paying off, as the classical music scene in Korea today is entirely different than what it was just 10 years ago.

Credia, a Korean classical music production agency, has been at the forefront of “making chamber music fun and friendly for all” over the past 10 years through Ensemble Ditto. Many young and talented male artists, who are also handsome enough to win the hearts of young female fans, have joined and left the ensemble with violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill in the center as the music director since the group’s birth in 2007.

Usually a chamber music ensemble has fixed members, although there may be few changes, and selects music they can play.

But Credia cleverly and bravely took a different road and focused on selecting the music they want to present first and then adding members by signing three-year contracts with young male artists who can perform the music. The strategy appeared to pay off soon after, as tickets to Ditto’s concerts sold out unprecedentedly fast, as if it were the concert of a K-pop boy band. That is when the ensemble was dubbed the “idols of classical music,” with fan clubs tagging along wherever they performed.

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Ensemble Ditto, an anniversary festival is currently being held at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul, showing an array of music by Ditto’s current and former members. On June 14, violinist Stefan Pi Jackiw and Pianist Ji, whose contracts ended last year, reunited once again to open the 10-year celebration of Ditto. On June 16, Ditto’s music director O’Neill performed with Japanese guitarist Kaori Muraji. The highlight of Ditto’s celebratory festival is on July 1 as Ditto’s old and new faces come together accompanied by renowned violinist Chung Kyung-wha for a gala concert showcasing Ditto’s popular repertoires like Mozart’s “Divertimento,” and Schubert’s “Piano Quintet in A major: Die Forelle.” New members who joined the current seven-member ensemble include violinist Yu-Chien Tseng, who won second place at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2015; cellist Mun Tae-guk, who became the first Korean to win the renowned Pablo Casals International Cello Competition in 2014; and clarinetist Kim Han, winner of the 2016 Jacques Lancelot International Clarinet Competition.

Ditto’s former member pianist Lim Dong-hyek is also performing June 27 together with cellist Gautier Capucon.

“I’ve never thought Ditto will last so long,” said Chung Jae-ock, director of Credia. “I created this project ensemble with one thought in mind, which was to communicate with a wider public through classical music performed by young artists. It was pitiful to see only the competition winners and renowned prodigies get all the attention in the classical music world while chamber music somehow gets pushed out of the limelight.”

As soon as Chung noticed the same thirst in O’Neill, they rolled up their sleeves to reach out to a wider audience.

“Ten wonderful seasons have passed since my dream of Ensemble Ditto began in 2007,” said O’Neill. “I never would have thought that this project, whose purpose was to make chamber music fun and friendly to all, would develop into what it is today. Sharing my lifelong passion, love and dedication to music with this project has been a life unto itself and I am forever grateful for this opportunity.” O’Neill grabbed the attention of the general public after appearing in the documentary “Human Theater” on KBS in 2004 which showed a young O’Neill in Korea as he tried to find out information about his mother Lee Bok-soon’s country as she was adopted by an American couple during the Korean War.

According to O’Neill, the plan for the next 10 years of Ditto will be focusing more on reaching out to those in rural areas as well as mentoring young students. O’Neill and pianist Lim have also been appointed as honorary ambassadors of 2017 Pyeongchang Special Music & Art Festival which is scheduled to kick off on Aug. 10 at the Alpensia Resort in Pyeongchang. This annual five-day festival was created in 2013 to celebrate the PyeongChang Special Olympics World Winter Games that same year. About 100 students with developmental disabilities will join this year’s festival where they will experience and enjoy classical and pop music as well as various arts programs. O’Neill, during the appointment ceremony last month at the Holt School for the disabled in Ilsan, Gyeonggi, talked about his belief in “music being the universal language which transcends speech and communicates completely, honestly and powerfully.”

“We do not dedicate our lives to music to save it for ourselves, no, our very mission is to share it with others,” he said.

Amidst the efforts from the industry insiders, star pianist Cho Seong-jin added fuel to the popularization of classical music after coming home with the first prize of the prestigious International Chopin Competition in 2015. Cho’s upcoming accompaniment to celebrate the Lotte Concert Hall’s one year anniversary on Aug. 18 sold out in one minute, according to the concert hall. Cho will perform “Beethoven Piano Concerto No.5: Emperor” under the baton of Chung Myeong-whun, the former artistic director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.

While Credia continues to brand and market classical music for the general public, the annual PyeongChang Music Festival & School which is celebrating its 14th year, has been quenching the thirst of classical music fans in Korea who crave more quality performances and diverse classical repertoires.

“Although the festival was established 14 years ago to attract the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, we’ve grown to be one of the top classical music festivals for international artists and students who want to learn from them,” said cellist Chung Myung-wha, who co-directs the festival with her violinist sister Kyung-wha.

When asked whether they’ve thought of coming up with a more popular classical repertoire to attract a wider audience, Myung-wha said that it is important to have the balance.

“There are already groups that continue to approach the general public with familiar repertoires that even non-classical fans like to listen to, and I believe they are doing a great job,” she said. “Therefore, it is our role to provide more quality works and introduce wider repertoires to those who need them as well. Together, we can expand the audience.”

Therefore, this year’s PyeongChang Music Festival & School will again concentrate on bringing great works and masters under the theme “Great Russian Masters.” The event will feature Russian classical music, which is not frequently played in Korea, for two weeks.

The highlight of this year’s festival is the Korean premiere of an opera “The Love for Three Oranges” by the Mariinsky Theatre. Mariinsky Theatre’s orchestra and singers stage the opera in a concert form under the baton of maestro Zaurbek Gugkaev of the Mariinsky Orchestra.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE
[sharon@joongang.co.kr]