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[Eye interview] German musician who put Tongyeong on international map

Florian Riem to leave Tongyeong after seven years at helm of efforts to grow Tongyeong into international music city

Nov. 27, 2020 - 09:01 By Kim Hoo-ran
Florian Riem, chief executive officer of Tongyeong Concert hall and the Tongyeong International Music Foundation (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
When I met Florian Riem, CEO of the Tongyeong International Music Foundation, for the first time at the Tongyeong International Music Festival in the spring of 2015, I noticed he was speaking through an assistant who spoke Japanese and Korean. He had worked in Japan prior to coming to South Korea and spoke Japanese.

“Oh boy,” I thought. “This is going to be some ride for both the city, his employer and him.” I was anxious for the small port city in the southwest, led by Mayor Kim Dong-jin, that had the gumption to hire a foreigner who spoke no Korean and the German musician-turned-administrator who bravely took on the job of heading a controversial music festival and a brand new concert hall.

I need not have worried. Under Riem’s leadership, the music festival grew into an internationally recognized event, and the concert hall today hosts performers of international standing who come to Korea to perform exclusively at Tongyeong.

Upon arrival in Tongyeong in November 2014, Riem oversaw the official opening of the much-awaited Tongyeong International Concert Hall. The annual Tongyeong International Music Festival got a permanent home, and the concert hall -- with its 1,300-seat main auditorium and 300-seat Black Box -- would serve as a hub for classical music in the underserved region.

“The beginning was time of learning,” said Riem in an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Nov. 11. With his departure from Tongyeong scheduled for the end of the month, he was in Seoul for meetings. He is headed to Geneva, where he will assume the post of secretary-general of the World Federation of International Music Competitions.

“One of the main reasons for coming was a chance to build something new,” he said, explaining that the music festival was there but a new foundation needed to be formed. While administrators “usually come to a made bed” at Tongyeong, it was easier to try new things, he said.

Making something outstanding -- a unique cultural institution away from Seoul -- and establishing an international image for the institution were a couple of the goals Riem had.

He also wanted the concert hall, the fourth-largest classical music concert hall in the country when it was completed, to have a place within the community. In the early days of the concert hall, it was not uncommon to hear local residents dismiss the concert hall as something that had nothing to do with them, serving only out-of-towners who descended upon the tiny city once a year in chartered buses.

Immediately, he initiated a concert program for schoolchildren. “It is one of my signature projects I am happy about,” he said. The project aims to make classical music, viewed as an elite pursuit, part of people’s lives. “Especially with a composer who is one of the biggest names in contemporary classical music hailing from the city,” said Riem, referring to Yun I-sang, a native son of Tongyeong.

His vision for the annual Tongyeong International Music Festival was to make it a “festival of experience” for visitors. “Seventy percent of the audiences are from Seoul but we are seeing more and more people from abroad and other parts of Korea,” he said. Indeed, Tongyeong boasts abundant attractions, fresh seafood and numerous nearby islands chief among them.

He set “different, unique and outstanding” as goals for TIMF. That meant inviting high-level artists as well as outstanding young musicians yet to be discovered. “A major role (of the festival) is to present artists that are not being presented in Seoul,” he said.

And musicians like the idea of coming to perform only in Tongyeong, among them cellist Mischa Maisky, who came for a long residency, and pianist Cho Seong-jin, who came for four days. “We have good personal relationships with the musicians, they love our hall. The whole situation is good for a festival,” he said.

TIMF has a unique atmosphere. It is intimate and you can focus entirely on the music -- of course with great seafood and sightseeing attractions as diversions. I look forward to the festival every spring and in the years that I manage to make a weekend trip, I am richly rewarded: great concerts in the evenings, sometimes two in a row, followed by a late-night supper of Tongyeong’s many seafood delicacies. Leaving the city on a Sunday morning, I grow wistful at the sight of cherry blossoms just about to peak. A few more days of music in Tongyeong and I would see spring in its full glory.

There are a number of principles that the music festival observes, which make the TIMF special for the audience. “We don’t invite the same artist two years in a row and require exclusive programming for orchestras,” Riem said.

While very few orchestras can travel internationally, many excellent orchestras are interested in Tongyeong, according to Riem. In fact, it is often the case that funding for orchestras to perform overseas is not too difficult to locate, he explained.

Riem is also happy to see the audience growing with the festival. “They keep coming over for the strangest contemporary music,” he said with a laugh.

As he prepares to leave Tongyeong, what are some of the highlights of his seven years at Tongyeong?

“There are many highlights,” he said, citing the children’s program first. “Performances for children, especially by big names. In a city where the city council is reluctant to fund art institutions, it is very important that they get direct impact from the people they trust, the children!” “

In this effort, Riem has visited all the elementary schools in the city, talking with the principals and inviting the schools to participate in special concerts for children.

The National Orchestra of France, a 120-member full orchestra, performed for 1,200 children and pianists Cho Seong-jin and Chung Myung-whun have performed free concerts for children at Tongyeong. While some musicians have needed more convincing, all are happy with the special experience in the end, according to Riem.

Tongyeong will always be associated with Yun I-sang, a controversial composer who was kidnapped from Germany and sentenced to death in Korea on espionage charges. He was released from jail in 1969 as international pressure for his release grew, and he returned to Germany where he became a naturalized German citizen, not allowed to set foot on Korean soil again. He died in Berlin in 1995. His wife and daughter now live in Tongyeong.

“There are no more demonstrations (against the treatment of Yun I-sang)” Riem said. “I encourage people to look at him as an artist,” he said. “He is the one greatest composer in the last century,” Riem continued, adding that while the controversies surrounding him should be acknowledged, they should not diminish his achievements.

In 2018, Riem brought back Yun I-sang’s ashes from Berlin. “He has a grave honor in Berlin. He was in very good company,” he said. “But the family wanted to stay together.”

“Two years ago, I proposed to bring him back if he (the mayor) wanted,” he said.

When the mayor gave the green light, Riem flew to Berlin, where some of the ashes were retrieved and put in a special biodegradable urn that would not set off metal detectors at airports. He carried the urn in his backpack the whole time and when he arrived at Gimhae Airport, he was met by police who accompanied him to Tongyeong.

“I gave the urn to the widow. I will never forget that moment,” he said. Yun now rests at the concert hall, by the sea that he so loved.

“Things were easier because I am a foreigner,” said Riem. “You can be impartial, nonpolitical.” And these qualities were important during the Park Geun-hye administration, when blacklists of artists deemed unfriendly to the government were drawn up.

In a past interview, when I asked why more of Yun’s music was not performed at TIMF, Riem had responded that he was biding his time. Now I know what he meant.

Today, 10-15 percent of TIMF programming is Yun I-sang. “It is important that the main works get played until they become standard repertoires.”

Yun’s politics aside, his music is really difficult, Riem pointed out. “We owe it to him to play his music,” he said. Local kids get a chance to hear some incredible works, and it is much easier for young people to absorb Yun I-sang. I want them to have pride in their own composer,” he said.

Attending the Isang Yun Prize ceremony recently at Dorasan Station near the Demilitarized Zone that separates the Koreas, I had an opportunity to hear Riem give a speech in Korean: He is fluent.

By Kim Hoo-ran (