Arriving from opposite sides of the world, David and Wu Han met in Seoul on December 5th to perform in and preside over the second season of Chamber Music Today, the annual three-day festival they inaugurated last year in collaboration with the Korean company Casual Classic. During the same visit, David interviewed the finalists of the first Mendelssohn Fellowship and announced the recipient of the Fellowship.
In David’s words
Arriving from a chilly Moscow December, one would expect warmer weather in Korea, but not so on December 5th in Seoul. The temperature was approaching single digits, but the clear air and the cheerful atmosphere of Seoul’s Insadong district was a delightful change in environment.
Our mission in Korea last week saw us in at least four roles: as performers, as Artistic Directors of Chamber Music Today and of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (whose artists performed on two of the concerts), and for me, as Artistic Director of the Mendelssohn Fellowship.
Chamber Music Today, inaugurated exactly one year ago, is a three-day festival that brings chamber ensembles and individual performers of international renown to Seoul. The festival consists of four concerts, including one special donor’s concert that kicks off the festival on Saturday night.
After a rehearsal with David Shifrin in a very small studio near the hotel, we showed him around what has become a very familiar neighborhood, filled with shops, restaurants and stands selling alluring street food.
During the day, our CMS musicians spent time teaching the many wonderful students of the LG Chamber Music School, our other major project in Korea. They came back with glowing reports of the level of talent and dedication, which we have seen develop steadily over the five years we have collaborated with the program. It was shocking to hear, however, that the school we have taught in (usually in hot weather) lacked heat, and that these very special young players are learning under extremely adverse conditions. There are always things we can do better for our musicians of the future, and we pledge to work at it.
The evening brought our first event, the donor’s concert, held this year in Seoul’s Hyatt Hotel, which is positioned on a hill overlooking the city. The festival is organized and administered by the Casual Classic arts company and its dedicated staff, presided over by director Jeehyun Kim, an irresistible, force-of-nature woman who is passionately dedicated to promoting classical music. Without her extraordinary vision, none of us would have been there.
Wu Han welcomed the small crowd comprised of distinguished guests, many from sponsoring corporations.
With an introduction from Wu Han, the St. Lawrence String Quartet took the stage perform a Haydn quartet. Geoff Nuttall delivered verbal program notes in his own inimitable and engaging style.
Following the Haydn, Wu Han and I ran through the Brahms e minor sonata to conclude the program, and we moved to the dining area for an elegant Chinese meal. Near the end, it was time for me to announce the winner of the first Mendelssohn Fellowship. Representatives from the three finalist groups stood by me, tensely, while I kept them waiting for the results, explaining to the crowd the story and mission of the Fellowship (see my blog from June at the time of the Fellowhip’s announcement).
After extensively interviewing all the finalists the day before, assisted by several of my Advisory Committee members, we came to the conclusion that all three were deserving of the prize, and it was a great joy – and relief to all the applicants – that I was able to congratulate them all in front of the enthusiastic crowd.
During the event, day had changed to night, and we were treated to a transformed view of Seoul before leaving. Cellist Chris Costanza made friends with the curious looking sculpture in the lobby.
Sunday brought a busy schedule with two concerts. Around lunch time, David Shifrin, Wu Han and I rode to the Seoul Arts Center to the hall where I first played in Korea with the Emerson Quartet many years ago. This marvelous hall was also home to the festival last year during our first season.
Backstage, Casual Classic pampered us, as usual, with delicious and beautiful snacks.
Our trio concert with David Shifrin consisted of the repertoire on our recent ArtistLed release: Beethoven’s Trio Op. 11, Four Pieces by Max Bruch, and the magnificent late trio by Johannes Brahms. After the concert we hurried out to the lobby, where we experienced one of the most heartening moments in our tours to Korea: meeting the audience.
There are more young people going to our concerts in Korea than I have seen anywhere in the world, in any concert I have performed or attended. There were probably as many, if not more, listeners under the age of twenty than above, so many that it prompted David Shifrin to joke that Korea seems to have a problem with a declining OLDER audience. From the demographics of all three audiences at this festival, one could make that a serious argument.
In a short time, it was the St. Lawrence Quartet’s turn to take the stage.
In a few moments, the quartet launched into a galloping first movement of Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 18 No. 6, led by violinist Scott St. John. Scott also led the fascinating second work on the program by Osvaldo Golijov, Chamber Music Today’s first performance of a work by a living composer.
After intermission, Geoff Nuttall took the first violin chair for a high-octane performance from start to finish of Mendelssohn’s spectacular quartet, Op. 44 No. 2 in e minor.
The lobby scene after was just as wild and just as young. The St. Lawrence Quartet was ecstatic, and they signed countless autographs for the young listeners.
A delicious dinner of pork barbecue ended late with a photo of some happy and well-fed musicians.
Although Wu Han and I were done with performing by Monday, we had a very busy day, beginning with a long strategy meeting with the winners of the Mendelssohn Fellowship. Our purpose was to identify the young musicians’ strong points and to help them by guiding their projects forward. Wu Han joined me in talking with the young musicians, and we shared with them a lot of conventional wisdom gleaned from our years of entrepreneurial work. Stay tuned for a next chapter on the exciting work of the new Mendelssohn Fellows.
The third and final concert of this year’s Chamber Music Today festival was presented entirely by a stellar group of artists of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. It was CMS’s Korean debut.
Traveling all the way to Korea for this single appearance were violinists Kristin Lee and Erin Keefe, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Nicholas Canellakis, and pianist Gilbert Kalish. David Shifrin joined them and was the only artist of the Society to appear in two concerts, besides us.
This performance took place in the more intimate Sejong Hall, near to our hotel and the historic palace.
The performance began with Dohnanyi’s fantastic Serenade for string trio, performed spectacularly by Kristin Lee, Paul Neubauer, and Nicholas Canellakis. For Kristin, a native Korean, it was a special moment for her to play there with CMS for the first time, especially with the musicians who have now become her regular colleagues and friends. Her parents and many family members and friends attended, and throughout our visit, she proved the perfect hostess, tour guide and companion.
The string trio was followed by David Shifrin and Gil Kalish in a performance of Debussy’s Premiere Rhapsody, a showpiece for clarinet which we have heard David perform on numerous occasions. David’s unequalled capacity for variety of color and nuance makes his performance of this work, for us, definitive, and the audience’s vocal response was indeed appropriate. Our listeners here, though young, seem to know what’s good, and they certainly got a lot of it in during the evening.
Erin Keefe then joined these two musicians for a bracing and uncannily accurate performance of Bartok’s Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano.
After intermission, a performance of the Brahms piano quintet concluded the program. In the opinion of many, Gil Kalish is one of the great Brahms interpreters of our time, bringing to the table his unbelievably rich tone, solid musical reasoning, crystal-clear articulation, natural phrasing, and an enormously powerful sound. Playing Brahms with him – and I’m lucky to have had many opportunities – is a chamber musician’s dream, one that certainly came true for his collaborators in this performance.
After being rewarded with numerous curtain calls, the ensemble quickly made its way to the lobby to greet Chamber Music Today’s signature audience. One of our musicians commented that it felt like a grown up concert with a children’s concert audience, and he could not have been more correct.
The temperature outside (and also in the lobby – none of the Korean lobbies seem to be heated) had dropped to the lowest mark of our visit so far, yet we braved the elements for a very brisk walk to a restaurant only a block away, for a meal organized and hosted by LG executive Sunghyun Kim. Sunghyun is, without a doubt, the most musically literate CFO we know, and he astounded our performers during dinner with the combination of his relaxed personality and enormous knowledge of our art form, not to mention, entertaining us with a true insider’s perspective of one of the world’s largest and most successful media companies.
True to tradition, everyone had early flights the next morning, but that stopped not one of us from enjoying absolutely mouth-watering barbecue, with all the Korean trimmings, and an astonishing amount of Shoju.
The evening ended with a photograph that included the whole cast, including Sunghyun Kim and his fellow LG executive Jun Yung (center), Jeehyun Kim and her staff, and of course, all of the musicians. Somehow the night didn’t feel so cold anymore, and I believe I speak for all of us when I say that we left Korea inspired by the audiences, warmed by the friendship, and eager to return to continue playing and teaching chamber music in this extraordinary society.