All for one, Chung for all
Myung-Whun Chung goes cosmopolitan with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.
The voice on the other end of the phone is calm, confident and relaxed, much like the conducting of the man it belongs to, Myung-Whun Chung. The Korean conductor and pianist (he often used to tour in a family piano trio with his sisters, Kyung-Wha and Myung-Wha) has built a career out of working with the identity of the musicians in front of him, instead of making all his orchestras sound the same. Musical characteristics vary from country to country, and Chung sees these as opportunities, not obstacles.
Chung will lead the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France at Orchestra Hall next week, and has been its music director since 2000. He knows what he’ll have to explain to them and not to the Dresden Staatskapelle, whom he conducted here in 2005, or the Chicago Symphony, whom he’ll lead one week next season. “Every culture has a slightly different balance of the various senses,” he says, and that leads to different concepts of how they approach sound. Chung has lived in Paris and Rome for the past 20 years and thinks the French value the sense of touch and smell over the others, which sharpens their reactions to some composers. “When one is playing Ravel, one has to create textures and sounds that one can almost feel or even almost smell before you hear it,” says Chung. He doesn’t need to discuss or rehearse this “perfume of sound” with the Orchestre Philharmonique, but does with a different ensemble.
That French music is naturally easier for French orchestras to play is no argument for only playing French music. “We should be trying to play Brahms just as well or better than anybody else,” he states emphatically, and not be tied down to notions of nationality. “I think that is more important than that a French orchestra should always sound French no matter what they play, or a German orchestra should sound German, or, God forbid, what an American orchestra should sound like, or a Korean orchestra.” (That “God forbid” is there given the lack of a homegrown tradition of American playing. He’s not pulling a Jean-Marie le Pen on us.)
In all cases, the goal is to become something greater than themselves, whether the orchestra is playing music from its national heritage or not—but not by starting out with preconceived notions. “That would be kind of a mistake; it’s like going into a marriage and then the two partners say, ‘Well, as a result of our marriage, we should create this united personality that we know exactly what it will be,’ ” says Chung. He says he always asks for patience from an ensemble, so that they can work out how it will go together.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Chung views his own nationality as a very small part of his own musical persona. “I was fortunate to be born in a musical family and so I’m convinced that I knew this music before I was born,” he says. And while he was born in Korea, his family moved to the U.S. when he was eight. He takes a cosmopolitan view of the world, placing his Korean identity far down a list of other qualities: “Number one, we are all human beings. Number two, I am a musician. And then number three, I happen to be Korean. This idea that one should identify with one’s country first is foreign to me.”
In today’s music world, there’s a standing belief that, by virtue of robotically trained musicians, most orchestras sound the same, save for a hallowed, usually European, few. Chung doesn’t buy it (and neither does Pierre Boulez). “I’m not so worried about that,” says Chung. His goal is to create a musical partnership stretching across nationalities, and when a trust develops, then something unique can grow. “I think that is what one should try to aim for, and that’s what we try to do in Paris.”
Chung leads the Radio Philharmonique de Radio France Wednesday 21.