http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/musi ... death.html
Myung-Whun Chung, interview: when music is life or death
Conductor Myung-Whun Chung doesn't know if the North Korean musicians he worked with are alive or dead. He talks to Adam Sweeting
By Adam Sweeting5:00PM BST 05 Jul 2014
Should playing classical music be a matter of life and death? Horrifying reports last year claimed that North Korea’s unpredictable ruler Kim Jong-un had ordered the executions by machine-gun fire of a dozen North Korean musicians from the Unhasu Orchestra, for breaking the country’s pornography laws. However, the country is so secretive and isolated that it has been impossible to confirm that the killings really took place, and one of the supposed victims, singer Hyon Song-Wol, subsequently appeared on state television, evidently in good health.
All this was especially worrying for South Korea-born conductor Myung-Whun Chung, who in 2012 had invited members of the Unhasu Orchestra to Paris to rehearse and perform with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, of which he’s music director. The collaboration, Chung hoped, could be a first step towards a broader reconciliation between North and South Korea.
“We were very shocked to hear these reports,” says Chung, “but then we also heard some other things, and it’s impossible to verify any of it. I cannot add anything to what you have already read. When you see the situation you understand why, because no one in North Korea is allowed to speak. This has gone on for 60 years, it’s really amazing.”
Even before these disturbing events, or rumours of events, Chung had decided that his professional career will now take second place to his vision of reuniting his divided homeland. At 61, he’s still a mere stripling compared with such titans of the podium as Sir Georg Solti or Sir Colin Davis, who stayed roped to the helm until their mid-eighties, but, as he puts it, “I came to realise I do have a dream and it’s shared by every Korean, which is to see Korea come together before my life is over. If the price was to forego everything else in my career, I would say without a millisecond’s hesitation ‘Please let me do it!’”
Chung began his musical career as a pianist, often performing in the Chung Trio with his sisters Kyung-Wha Chung (violin) and Myung-Wha Chung (cello). His first move into conducting was his 1979 appointment as assistant to Carlo Maria Giulini at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He has subsequently conducted most of the world’s greatest orchestras.
“I’ve always felt that after 60 years of age one’s priority must be completely and forever changed,” he explains. “I don’t consider myself so much a professional musician any more. Now my decisions are based almost entirely on personal feelings, and top of the list is what can I do to help the next generation?”
Chung has been winding down his guest-conducting activities with La Scala, Milan and the Dresden Staatskapelle, and plans just one more year with the Radio France orchestra, having begun working with them in 2000. Since 2006 he has been music director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, and his ambition now is to see the day when he can conduct the One Korea Orchestra, made up of musicians from both sides of the 38th parallel. He’s convinced that classical music, with its unique history and ability to transcend national boundaries, can be a persuasive force for change, but he’s under no illusions about the scale of the task.
“There are great similarities with bringing down the Berlin Wall,” he reflects, “but the big difference is that there was communication between both sides. I used to do tours in East Germany, but North Korea is walled off absolutely.”
He made a start on his great mission in 2011, when he visited the North Korean capital Pyongyang (the only North Koreans he’d ever previously met were four singers on a six-month study programme in Paris, who attended one of his rehearsals). Thanks to his long-standing connections in Paris – he was music director of the Opera Paris-Bastille in the early Nineties – he’d established a friendship with former culture minister Jack Lang. Chung was intrigued to hear that France was opening a cultural centre in North Korea and contacted Lang, who put him in touch with North Korea’s Unesco ambassador in Paris.
“This ambassador told me, ‘We will welcome you to North Korea with open arms, any time.’ I explained that I’d like that, but that’s not enough for me because of the responsibility I have in Korea. I said my visit had to have some meaning and it must lead to some sort of collaboration, and that’s how it started.”
The upshot was that Chung went to Pyongyang to rehearse with two ensembles, the Pyongyang National Symphony Orchestra and the Unhasu Orchestra. One of the pieces he played with them was Beethoven’s Ninth symphony (which Chung will also conduct at St Paul’s Cathedral with the LSO on July 15, as part of the City of London Festival).
“I said to them, ‘The reason why this music is so powerful is because through his music, Beethoven was a fighter for liberty all his life.’ If anybody else had said that they’d probably have been put in prison immediately, but in this musical context it was somehow allowed.
“After the rehearsal one of the musicians came to me and said, ‘We will never forget this day because this was our first chance ever to play this symphony.’ ”
Politely declining an official offer to take a North Korean orchestra on tour, Chung instead persuaded the authorities to let the Unhasu Orchestra come and work with his orchestra in Paris. “I chose to continue with the Unhasu Orchestra mainly because they were younger, and we spent nearly a week together in Paris. You can imagine that it was quite an emotional gathering.”
The visit culminated in a concert at the Salle Pleyel, where the combined musical forces performed Brahms’s First Symphony and a couple of traditional Korean compositions. Chung found the North Korean players to have a high degree of technical proficiency, but “they need exposure to more open musical views”.
Hopes were high as the visitors departed. “I suggested a number of other future projects and the musicians promised they would do everything in their power to make them happen. But as so often happens in North Korea, with no explanation the doors were shut even more firmly.” That’s when the news of the executions came.
Is he optimistic about the future?
“I have never met one single Korean who doesn’t wish that we could be reconciled. There’s no question that it will happen, we just don’t know how or when.”