Maestro’s South Korean Adventures – Part 5

Monday, June 18

It is Monday which marks the first day of rehearsals with the Changwon Philharmonic. Choi has been very upbeat about the orchestra as an ensemble saying several times, “You’re going to love this orchestra Maestro!” We meet Choi around 9:30 and walk over to the hall. The Changwon Arts center is a huge complex with several theaters at street level and offices and rehearsal space below. After we cross the street, Inho Kim, the orchestra’s Associate conductor, meets us outside with the orchestra manager and walks us down a long hallway lined with photographs of the various resident arts group and posters for upcoming concerts. We turn a corner and I’m ushered into the conductors dressing lounge complete with elegant paintings of the previous two and current Music Director. There is a nice area to relax, a grand piano, refrigerator, desk, computer, and other things that might be appreciated, such as a hot water kettle for coffee or tea. Inho makes sure I have cold water and we meet briefly with the general manager and personnel manager regarding the rehearsal schedule.

The assistant concertmaster–acting as concertmaster for this performance–name is Rina and she comes in and introduces herself. She speaks fluent English after having been trained in New York at Juilliard and spent many a summer at the Aspen Music Festival. Rina is also good friends with Michelle Kim, an assistant concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic and a soloist with us next season. She asks a few questions about Prokofiev, then also about the size of the string section for the Brahms Violin Concerto on the program. For this concert they are carrying 14, 12, 10, 10, 6, which we reduce by one stand for the concerto. Today and tomorrow though, we will only work on the Prokofiev Symphony No. 5. Inho has read through the piece with them on the previous Friday, so they at least have a sense how the piece goes. The orchestra tunes (before the 10 AM downbeat) and at 10 I am introduced and off we go into the first movement. Having never heard or conducted this ensemble, my plan is to read the first movement then go back and rehearse.

The rehearsal room is spacious and the orchestra seems quite comfortable with the place. Curtains line the walls as the size of the winds and percussion will create some decibel levels that could be dangerous. The layout of the orchestra is different from what I am use to with the woodwinds directly in front of me and the brass in a line behind them. The horns are stacked on the risers next to the woodwinds on stage right and the percussion further off to the same side. The strings are configured in a standard way save the violas to the outside and cellos between them and second violins.

Well, Choi was right. The orchestra is fabulous. They are VERY attentive and even with my speaking to them in English, they only need to be told most things once before they make an adjustment. They follow like a dream and the ebb and flow of the first movement is already something they seem to understand. They also have a true sense of their own sound and play to that level. Technically they are solid and even the most intricate of rhythms (of which Prokofiev writes many) are clear to hear. We work for an hour or so, then take a break of 15 minutes. Then we launch into the scherzo which is equally at a “tweakable” level as opposed to needing “woodshedding.” We accomplish most of what I’m looking for and they are released a few minutes early–they certainly earned it!

The humidity is doing its customary number on my shirt and hair and by the end I have that wilted look that such an environment leaves me at the end of a rehearsal. I ask Rina if I’m the only conductor who sweats so much and she say certainly not, they all do. (Nonetheless, I don’t see the orchestra perspiring.) Inho takes pity on me and brings a towel, some water, and a fan into the conductor’s lounge which helps. After rehearsal we gather up the general manager, Inho, Choi, Leslie, Rina, Ms. Baek, the publicity person for the orchestra and another fluent English speaker, and head to lunch. This is another traditional Korean meal with many dishes and soup hitting the table. The conversation is lively and fun. Leslie discovers that the GM is also a composer, Rina talks about her time in the U.S., Inho tells us some of the pieces he’s conducted this season (including Strauss Alpine Symphony!), and Ms. Baek gives her own background which is not in music, but in literature.

As lunch concludes we are taken back to the hotel. Before departing, Choi and Inho help us find a restaurant nearby to have dinner. They walk us down to the next block and we are set up with a BBQ Pork dinner with the owner at 7 PM. We head back to our room and I decide it is time for a work out around the lake before cleaning up and going for dinner. The meal is delicious and though we are struggling to pronounce and Korean, the owner takes good care us.

It has been a good day and I’m now quite excited for the rest of the week.