KBS orchestra's new chief conductor honors his home in first concert

Pietari Inkinen [KBS SYMPHONY]

On Jan. 28, the KBS Symphony Orchestra premiered Sibelius’s “Lemminkäinen Suite” at its concert at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul. As the work is based on a shamanistic figure from Finnish mythology, Korean orchestras have been somewhat hesitant to perform it unless they fully understand the piece, despite it being one of the composer's greatest pieces.

Local audiences were finally able to enjoy a live performance of “Lemminkäinen Suite” thanks to the KBS Symphony Orchestra. It only makes sense as Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen, who has been on numerous prestigious podiums, was the one with the baton. It was in fact the inaugural concert for Inkinen after taking the music director and chief conductor position at the KBS Symphony Orchestra from January. His term will continue until the end of 2024.

“For Sibelius, I think it fits the KBS Symphony very well,” said Inkinen. “Especially for ‘Lemminkäinen,’ the atmosphere and colors are so unique that for some orchestras it’s very difficult to get into this very special world unless you have an open mind. Our KBS Symphony members were completely open to all of it. They were just open to listening to what I had to say and what I would like to hear and they were very curious to go with it. This is the very attitude you need for this music to work because it is very unique.”

Following Yoel Levi, Inkinen became the ninth music director of the KBS Symphony Orchestra. Though he juggles many roles — as a chief conductor of the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie as well as the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra — Inkinen said he has decided to take up the position that requires a lot more dedication than “a mere guest conductor” because he believes he can help the orchestra “to further develop its position as a leading Asian orchestra and strengthen its position in the international market.”

One of the key areas Inkinen wants to focus on during his three-year term is to foster Korean conductors by launching a music academy within the orchestra. He’s already tested the project’s success with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra while he was a music director there, he told the Korea JoongAng Daily during an interview at his new office inside KBS in Yeouido in western Seoul on Jan. 26.

“Several of the students [from this academy] now have careers around the world. Two Kiwi girls are the most successful examples as they have positions in American orchestras as conductors. I am very positive that this can happen here too,” said Inkinen. “I come from a very fortunate background in Finland with many opportunities very early on to develop in this profession and I really hope we can make a change here through this program.”

Inkinen, who himself comes from “a country that is very invested in music education” believes serious training is indispensable in fostering great talents. He learned to play the fiddle and the piano at age four, sang in a choir and often visited Sibelius’s house. Such a “unique” training program in Finland, according to Inkinen, has produced a clear result: With a population of 5.5 million people, the country has 30 orchestras.

“More and more, we see people trying to take easy routes,” he said. “It’s a bit worrying. Someone who can sing in the shower appears on a TV show and becomes famous? This is a disastrous model. Fame does not come easy. You cannot become a star overnight. You cannot become a great musician by cutting corners. You may have the fame, but not the quality.”

For the KBS Symphony’s academy, Inkinen plans to invite two of KBS Symphony’s former music directors — Yoel Levi and Dmitry Kitaenko — as “honorary conductors not only to expand the family of conductors and have them conduct the orchestra regularly but also help with the academy as teachers for the next generation of Korean conductors.”

Inkinen conducts the KBS Symphony Orchestra [KBS SHYMPHONY ORCHESTRA]

Inkinen says the main objective of the academy is to foster the next generation of Korean conductors but that it can “expand to anything.”

“We’ll eventually appoint assistant conductors and resident conductors who can be on our team and slowly allow them to have more and more important opportunities, have them tutored by me and my other colleagues,” said Inkinen. “So I think there’s a lot of potential to expand. It’s better to start smaller and then grow. But the main goal is to improve Korea’s conductor situation for the future, not just for the KBS Symphony Orchestra.”

Inkinen also introduced some of his other goals during his term. They include increasing the number of his concerts, not only in Seoul but in regional cities around the country.

“I hope international tours can happen eventually in the coming years and I have big dreams of touring the United States,” he said.

As the orchestra belongs to Korea’s major state-run broadcasting company KBS, Inkinen added that he’ll make full use of its advantages to present the orchestra to as many people as possible using various media platforms.

Another long-term goal Inkinen has is to have joint projects with his Deutsche Radio Philharmonie.

“We’ll commission works for both Korean and European composers through this exchange program and have joint concerts here in Seoul and in Europe when we can freely travel,” said Inkinen. “I think there are wonderful opportunities ahead of us.”

Inkinen said he also hopes to take the KBS Symphony and perform in North Korea one day.

“I wish we could play in North Korea once and bring the message of peace through music,” said Inkinen. “Maybe we could realize it if the right time comes.”

For this year, KBS Symphony has 12 concerts planned in Seoul. Inkinen will stand on the podium for six of them including two upcoming concerts, one on Feb. 26 and another on March 24, both at the Seoul Arts Center. For the former, the orchestra will be accompanied by violinist Vadim Repin to perform pieces like Sebelius’ “Andante Festivo,” Bruch’s “Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Major, Op. 26,” Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36.” For the March 24 concert, violinist Benjamin Schmid will accompany the orchestra and perform pieces like Korngold’s “Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35” and Mahler’s “Symphony No. 7 in E Minor.”