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Passing the baton: Workshops to help future conductors take the stage

Nov. 20, 2022 - 10:33 By Park Ga-young
Ahn Yeo-ryeong (second from left) participates in KNSO's Conducting Workshop by Artistic Director David Reiland on Oct. 28. (KNSO)

David Reiland, the Artistic Director of the Korean National Symphony Orchestra, stands next to Ahn Yeo-ryeong, one of the four up-and-coming conductors selected for a workshop organized by the orchestra.

Ahn conducts Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor in front of Reiland and a group of audience members who keenly observed the interaction between the two conductors as well as with the orchestra.

Ahn shows conspicuous movements and expressions, to which the Luxembourgian conductor who has been leading the orchestra since January 2022 says “you are the music itself” before giving her one-on-one instructions tailored to the 30-year-old budding conductor.

“Mr. Liner's words are very practical and realistic. I could experiment with what he told me and feel the sound change as I did. It's a very inspirational experience,” Ahn told The Korea Herald after her second session with Reiland and the KNSO.

In addition to Brahms’ piece, Ahn and three other aspiring conductors Kim Ji-soo, Park Hye-won and Hwang Young-mook were given a chance to conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, and Stravinsky's “The Firebird” over the course of two days on Oct. 28 and 29.

This workshop is aimed to foster the country’s future conductors as Korean classical musicians -- especially solo performers -- earn the international spotlight at prestigious competitions. It takes place two years before the KNSO International Conducting Competition, a triennial conducting competition launched last year in a bid to discover and support talented young conductors around the world.

The first KNSO International Conducting Competition took place in November 2021, with Elias Peter Brown from the US receiving the top prize.

“For the overall development of the Korean music industry, support systems need to be diversified from the current soloist-centered support to include other fields. In particular, fostering conductors is the starting point of enriching the Korean orchestral stage,” Choi Jung-sook, CEO of KNSO, said.

Park Soo-hyun, one of the two participants in the conducting masterclass of the KBS Symphony Orchestra, leads the orchestra during a final audition on Oct. 24 at KBS in Seoul. (KBS Symphony Orchestra)

This is also a growing trend witnessed in the country's other major orchestras.

The KBS Symphony Orchestra has launched a year-long master class for teenagers, which started in November. The first-ever masterclass for teenagers here was part of the new artistic director Pietari Inkinen’s efforts to foster the next generation of conductors in South Korea.

Inkinen, who is often referred to as one of the success stories of Finland’s fabulous music education, said during a press conference in January that he was fortunate to be introduced to conducting at an early age and that wanted to replicate the experience to South Korean children.

Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra has run master classes like this since 2013, when then-artistic director of the orchestra Chung Myung-whun, one of the nation's most renowned conductors, launched a conducting master class in 2013. SPO has carried out conducting master classes by its art director and principal guest conductors almost every year even after Chung's departure in 2015.

Conductor Chung Myung-whun talks during a conducting masterclass at Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra's practice room at Sejong Center on Sept. 4, 2015. (Yonhap)

Business side

One day before the KNSO's workshop sessions, a special lecture on how to deal with the business side of their musical careers was offered. For this purpose, Rachel Bowron, who has extensive experience in the music agency business and manages American conductor Marin Alsop, had a talk session where she discussed the world of artist management and agency, and how to stand out as a conductor.

That is because becoming a great musician is one thing, but cultivating a career that sustains them as they pursue their passions and showcase their talents is also crucial, an official at the KNSO said.

“Many Korean students are too humble and shy to reach out to people during an international competition when they don’t win, it’s an opportunity lost,” the official added.

"To be a conductor one has to be strong and clear and sure and that could be quite difficult with such a gentle, polite (Korean) culture. Some of the young conductors have mentioned that they don't know how to ask and they don't want to demand," Bowron told The Korea Herald.

Bowron, who also serves on the jury panel for the KSNO Conducting Competition, added that workshops that combine masterclasses and seminars about the business side would help foster conductors and eventually the rest of the country's music industry.

As interest in Korea spreads beyond solo performers, companies are also seeking ways to support conductors and composers.

SeAH Woon Hyung Lee Foundation, established by the family of the late president of SeAH Group Lee Woon Hyung in 2013, has decided to become a financial supporter of the KNSO's conducting workshop as it considers supporting conductors to be as important as supporting solo performers.

“More and more Korean people are interested in conductors, partly due to an increasing number of talent in the field,” Hong Sung-in, general director of the foundation said.