TONGYEONG, South Gyeongsang Province ― The sleepy little fishing town of Tongyeong on Korea’s southeastern coast is suddenly awakened from its winter slumber when spring brings with it cherry blossoms, tourists, and busloads of music aficionados who come for the Tongyeong International Music Festival, a festival of contemporary music.
The opening of the Tongyeong Concert Hall this year marks a milestone in the growth of the festival that traces its roots to the 2000 Tongyeong Contemporary Music Festival that paid homage to composer Yun I-sang, who was born there.
On March 28, artistic director and conductor Alexander Liebreich led the Tongyeong Festival Orchestra in opening the 12th edition of TIMF with a performance of Yun’s “Fluktuationen fur Orchester,” a 15-minute piece in rapid, sustained motion, written in 1964.
Several modern pieces rarely performed in Korea are featured in this year’s festival, organized under the theme of “Seascapes.” The 300-seat Black Box was packed on opening night for the Korean premiere of “The Killing Flower” by TIMF’s composer-in-residence Salvatore Sciarrino which was first performed in 1998 in Germany. The two-act “art tragedy” based on 16th century Italian madrigal composer Carlo Gesualdo’s murder of his wife and her lover combines drama with music in songs that are sparse, stripped down to its essence, often sung in whispers and breaths.
Tongyeong Concert Hall, which serves as a festival hall for the Tongyeong International Music Festival, in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang Province. (TIMF)
Also getting a first outing in Korea is Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian, the other TIMF composer-in-residence, whose “Requiem” commemorating the Armenian genocide was performed on March 30. “Requiem” had its world premiere in Berlin in 2011.
The festival is due to conclude on April 3 with “Hommage a Isang Yun,” a work blending dance and visual media to focus on the music of Yun, produced by film director Byun Hyeok.
Sat on a cliff by the sea and commanding a panoramic view of the surrounding waters, the Tongyeong Concert Hall featuring the 1,300-seat Concert Hall and 300-seat Black Box, is only the fourth concert hall in the country dedicated to classical music. While the sheer size of it may seem extravagant for a city with population of about 139,000, it is perhaps a fitting tribute to the city proud of its cultural scene and homegrown artists who were indelibly influenced by the environment.
Novelist Park Kyung-li, who set a number of her works in her hometown, poet Yu Chi-hwan, who was inspired by the sea he grew up with, and painter Jeon Hyeok-lim whose paintings depict the vibrant indigo of the sea are some of the celebrated Tongyeong artists loved by the people of the region.
Composer Yun I-sang, closely associated with the city as he grew up here and was active in the local arts scene before leaving for Europe in 1956 to further his music studies, on the other hand, is a figure who is a bit more complicated.
In Europe, he built a solid international reputation as a modern music composer, recognized for introducing elements of Asian music to Western music in his avant-garde compositions.
Yet in his native country, he is a problematic figure who elicits mixed reactions, not because of his music but because of his politics. In 1967, he was kidnapped from Berlin by South Korean agents and put on trial for espionage. His death sentence led to an international campaign to save him. Noted artists including Igor Stravinsky and Herbert von Karajan joined the call for the composer’s release. In 1969, the Park Chung-hee government released Yun, banning him from the country forever. In 1971, Yun became a naturalized West German citizen and was never able to return to his hometown. He died in Berlin 1995.
The Tongyeong International Music Festival Foundation, responsible for the festival and the concert hall in addition to the Isang Yun Memorial Park, prefers to distance the festival from Yun’s politics, focusing instead on his musical legacy.
“Yun is not a politician, but a musician. We don’t want to politicize the person,” said Liebreich, the festival’s artistic director, during a press conference on March 21. “We don’t want the festival to be a museum for Yun,” he said.
Rather, the festival aims to continue Yun’s legacy, serving as a bridge between the East and West, by inviting composers-in-residence from the East and West, and holding the Asian Composers Showcase and Award. For the showcase, sponsored by the Goethe Institute, four Asian composers are commissioned to write pieces for a small chamber ensemble with an option to include string instruments from Asia.
This year’s Goethe-Award and the Audience Award, respectively, went to Zihua Tan for “Walking in the Mangata” and Park Jeon-kyu for “Moments Musiaux II.”
“We try to tap into the spirit of Yun, finding young talent on the threshold of East and West,” said Reimar Volker, in charge of programming for the East Asian region at the Goethe-Institut Korea. For Germans, Yun is someone who connects the East and West and symbolizes the affinity between Germany and Korea, Volker said.
While Yun may be seen in South Korea as a political figure with that leans pro-North Korean, overseas, he is considered a musician foremost.
Volker, as a student of music, was in fact unaware of the political ramification of Yun. “I knew him 100 percent as a musician,” he said.
“Yun is extremely highly regarded as a composer who introduced Korean sound and aesthetics to Germany. He is a real ambassador for Korean culture,” he said.
“The Asian Composers Showcase is an attempt to find a new Yun,” Volker added.
Artistic director Liebreich’s caution against politicizing Yun is echoed by Florian Riem, the foundation CEO.
The reason for not more of Yun’s compositions being featured even at the festival that seeks to celebrate him is that Yun’s orchestral works are difficult to perform and foreign to both players and the audience, Riem explained.
Why not name the concert hall after Yun?
“Naming it so would have created additional problems,” said Riem, referring to the political controversy surrounding the late composer. An allegation in 2011 that the late composer was responsible for a South Korean family living in Germany defecting to the North in the 1980s made headlines and threatened to divide the city where Yun’s daughter and wife are residents.
“Perhaps 2017, the centennial of Yun’s birth, might be the time to think about renaming the concert hall,” said Riem.
By Kim Hoo-ran, Senior writer