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Korean music mystery revealed

(left) Pianist Son Yeol-eum won second prize at the 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition in June 2011; (right) Queen Fabiola of Belgium congratulates Soprano Hong Hae-ran, winner of the 2011 Queen Elisabeth International Competition (photos: Yonhap News).(left) Pianist Son Yeol-eum won second prize at the 14th International Tchaikovsky Competition in June 2011; (right) Queen Fabiola of Belgium congratulates Soprano Hong Hae-ran, winner of the 2011 Queen Elisabeth International Competition (photos: Yonhap News).

Korea’s young classical music artists continue to mesmerize the world with their growing artistic eminence, frequently spotted at numerous internationally acclaimed contests held across the globe. The worldwide Western classical music scene, traditionally dominated by European, Russian, and Japanese musicians, is now faced with what the Belgian music documentary journalist Thierry Loreau calls the “Korean landslide.”

Over the past few weeks, a pool of Korea’s musicians made news in Brussels by accounting for a quarter of the semifinalists at the nation’s prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition’s 2012 violin edition, following last year’s buzzed-about soprano Hong Hae-ran, who became the first Asian winner of the voice competition. Among the three Korean violinists who made it to the finals, “homegrown” violinist Shin Hyun-soo was awarded the third prize, followed by Korean-American violinist Esther Yoo who came in fourth place, along with Kim Dami who finished among the twelve finalists.


As a small country in the Far East -- once seen as an unexplored land in the international classical music community, merely a few decades ago -- continues to collect upper rank laureates at international contests like the Tchaikovsky Competition and the Maria Callas Grand Prix, more have begun to question the reasons behind its rising prominence in such a short period.

Korean music mystery: How does Korea “manufacture” virtuosos to sweep Europe?

Radio Télévision Belge Francophone (RTBF) brings Korea’s young virtuosos to the screen, delving into the secret on behalf of curious audiences, as the artists grow prevailingly present at the world-renowned classical music competition. The public broadcasting organization of the French Community of Belgium went on to produce a documentary series dedicated to exploring the ins and outs of “the Korean mystery,“ which later became the title of the music documentary, “Le mystère musical coréen.”

 RTBF music advisor Thierry Loreau referred to the phenomenon of Korean artists sweeping the global contests as an unprecedented mystery in classical music history (photo: Yonhap News). RTBF music advisor Thierry Loreau referred to the phenomenon of Korean artists sweeping the global contests as an unprecedented mystery in classical music history (photo: Yonhap News).

"The great success that the South Korean musicians are now enjoying in the international music community is without precedent in history,” said RTBF music advisor Thierry Loreau in an interview with the Korean press in Seoul last November.

"The South Korean musicians came like an avalanche grabbing the prizes at European competitions. Many people describe it as a mystery and I was also wondering what the secret is," he confessed, adding that he has been impressed by the recent predominance of South Korean musicians.

The findings of Loreau’s preliminary research, aimed at uncovering the secrets behind such a swift rise, came upon an astonishing surprise. According to the statistics that investigate nationalities of competition finalists and winners over the decades, Korea had turned out only a very limited number of finalists until 1995. However, for the next 16 years, the country took classical music to new heights, accounting for a total of 378 finalists and 60 competition laureates, half of which were for voice segments.

“Le mystère musical coréen” by Thierry Loreau, who teamed up with film director Pierre Barré to shed light on the phenomenon, was screened across Europe in conjunction with the Queen Elisabeth concours. The documentary created a huge sensation even before its airing, leading the producer to conduct a barrage of interviews with the local press, including Le Soir and De Standaard.

One of Korean violinists, Shin Hyun-su One of Korean violinists, Shin Hyun-su
The 75-minute documentary highlights why young Korean musicians have become so keen and powerful in classical music, also featuring this year’s third-prize laureate violinist Shin Hyun-su (left).

Loreau and Barré illustrate a journey of discovering different reasons behind the mystery, through a series of in-depth interviews and coverage of young and emerging talents, while depicting their daily lives. During their visit to Korea, the RTBF team also met with faculty members of the Korea National University of Arts (KNUA), including President Park Jong-won, pianist Kim Daejin, and tenor Choi Sang-ho, under whom the grand-prize-winning-soprano Hong Hae-ran studied with hopes to demystify the ingredients of the local education.

The documentary attributes a zeal for excellence blended with tenacity, endless training, and the process of overcoming a battle with oneself throughout youth as one of the grounds for Korean musicians’ distinguished move.

“The interview with Shin Hyun-su, who showcased an excellent performance at this year’s final round, drew particular attention from the local press,” remarked Loreau. A laureate of various international competitions, Shin was first introduced to violin at the early age of 4, and studied under Professor Kim Nam-yun since early admission to KNUA after completing the university’s special youth training program. Without having studied abroad, the homegrown violinist impressed the music community, winning the first prize at France’s Long-Thibaud International Competition in 2008 and the Hannover International Violin Competition prize in 2006.

Korea devotes efforts to foster young artists

Korean regional governments’ continued investment and support of the arts and arts education has also emerged as another key issue according to the film producers’ analysis.

Young instrumentalists train to perfection of technical mastery and expressiveness under the guidance of master-professors of the Korea National University of Arts (KNUA), one of Korea’s leading conservatories (photo courtesy of KNUA).Young instrumentalists train to perfection of technical mastery and expressiveness under the guidance of master-professors of the Korea National University of Arts (KNUA), one of Korea’s leading conservatories (photo courtesy of KNUA).

In this regard, the establishment of the state-run Korea National University of Arts, which marks its 20th anniversary this year, has accomplished a great deal in fostering gifted youths with its high-quality educational program.

Besides the training system that allows youths with talent and high potential to receive an early education, parents’ high level of interest and full-pledged support of education, a competitive environment and aptitude for artistic talent also received the spotlight as the drive behind the successful inroads.

Arie Van Lysebeth, chair of the jury of the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition, remarks that he was readily impressed by the energy of the Korean musicians in previous competitions. “It is a nation with many musical talents and good schools.”

 The Korean National Research Institute for the Gifted in Arts, an organ under the KNUA, was established in 2008 to cultivate a pool of gifted young artists in music, dance, and traditional arts through providing a specialized quality educational program in accordance with the Korean government’s policy initiative (photo courtesy of KNUA).The Korean National Research Institute for the Gifted in Arts, an organ under the KNUA, was established in 2008 to cultivate a pool of gifted young artists in music, dance, and traditional arts through providing a specialized quality educational program in accordance with the Korean government’s policy initiative (photo courtesy of KNUA).

Fred Brouwers suggests an unconventional viewpoint, which identifies the economic development of the country as a primary reason of the Korean mystery. “To me, it proves that music is closely linked to the standard of living and the economic development of a nation. In the wake of their strong markets, the country has not only seen potential in the production of cars and technology, but also in highly trained musicians,” says the classical music specialist who has commented on the Queen Elisabeth concours for over 33 years.

“First it was the Europeans who won the music competitions, and then the Russians who have a long musical tradition. Japanese musicians came along with their growing economy in the foreground, and now we see the rise of the South Koreans. Perhaps the Chinese are waiting in the next row.”

Named after Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, the competition is considered one of the world’s most respected musical events, together with Russia’s International Tchaikovsky Competition and Poland’s International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition.

The competition, which marks its 75th anniversary this year, has divisions for violin, piano, and voice held on a rotating basis, alongside a composition segment -- another discipline at which Korean talents have shown a strong presence. In 2010, then-23-year-old Jeon Minjae became the youngest Grand Prize winner since the competition’s inception, making it the second consecutive edition that a Korean has won since Cho Eun-hwa, the 2008 laureate. For more information on the competition and the closing concert of the 2012 violin competition, visit the official website.

By Hwang Dana
Korea.net Staff Writer

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