Tongyeong International Music Festival marks its 20th edition

Dalia Stasevska conducts the Tongyeong Festival Orchestra during the opening concert of the 20th Tongyeong International Music Festival (TIMF) on Friday at Tongyeong Concert Hall in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang. [KIM SI-HOON]

TONGYEONG, South Gyeongsang — Young music composition student Kim Sngkn, who went to Berlin in the early 90s, had a fateful encounter with a Korean-born German composer Yun Yi-sang (1917-95).

After becoming overwhelmed by his greatness, Kim decided that he would return home and make sure Yun’s name would become known among Koreans as a great contemporary classical music composer and his works be much appreciated by his people, generation after generation.

Yun Yi-sang (1917-95)

In 2002, Kim, who became a professor of composition at the Institute of Traditional Music at the Seoul National University, established a music festival in Yun’s hometown Tongyeong.

Kim had no connections whatsoever in this southern coastal city that took nearly seven hours to reach by car from Seoul (it takes about four and a half hours now with new expressways), but he was determined to give it a go. It was like “beating his head against a brick wall,” many people who witnessed his efforts recalled, including internationally renowned contemporary classical music composer Unsuk Chin.

Twenty years later, Yun’s music is still being performed and celebrated by musicians and audiences from both home and abroad at what has become an internationally acclaimed annual music festival.

This year, the Tongyeong International Music Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary. The 10-day festival kicked off on March 25 under the theme “Vision in Diversity.” Chin became the artistic director of the festival this year for a five-year term.

Yun’s music is played by different artists and ensembles throughout the festival. The first performance of his works was by Korean string quartet Novus Quartet on Saturday afternoon. It performed Yun’s “String Quartet No. 5,” which was composed in 1990.

Dalia Stasevska conducts the Tongyeong Festival Orchestra during the opening concert of the 20th Tongyeong International Music Festival (TIMF) on Friday at Tongyeong Concert Hall in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang. [KIM SI-HOON]
Norwegian cellist Truls Mork accompanies the Tongyeong Festival Orchestra during the opening concert of this year's TIMF on Friday. He is this year's festival's artist-in-residence. [KIM SI-HOON]

“I now live in Seoul but I visit my hometown [Tongyeong] during the festival period to listen to Yun Yi-sang’s music,” said Kang Mun-cheol, 67, from Seoul, who attended Novus Quartet’s concert with his wife. “We’ve never been to a Novus Quartet concert before but decided to give it a go this time and we really enjoyed it. My wife became a fan.”

“Sim Tjong,” Yun's opera based on a famous Korean folk tale, was performed to celebrate the opening of the Munich Olympics in 1972. During his lifetime, Yun composed 150 works, including “Butterfly Widow” (1968), “Exemplum in Memoriam Kwanju” (1981), and “My Land, My People” (1987).

Tongyeong International Music Festival has established itself as one of Korea’s major music festivals. However, it has been a long journey. Though Yun is regarded as one of the greatest musicians in history next to other 20th century composers like George Gershwin, Bela Bartok and Igor Stravinsky, he was not as recognized in his hometown. His name was more known as an artist who was abducted by the Korean secret police during the military dictatorship of Park Chung Hee in 1967, when he was 50, for allegedly being a North Korean spy. He was tortured and sentenced to life imprisonment but the international arts community, led by conductor Herbert von Karajan and Stravinsky, pressured Korean government to release Yun, which happened two years later. As soon as he was released, he returned to Germany and obtained German citizenship in 1971.

American composer Andrew Norman is the composer-in-residence for this year's TIMF. [CRAIG MATHEW]
Soprano Julia Lezhneva will perform on March 30 and also for the finale concert on April 3 instead of pianist Dezso Ranki, who had to cancel his trip last minute due to the rising number of Covid-19 cases in Korea. [KSENIA ZASETSKAYA]

The incident was part of “Dongbaengnim,” or the “East Berlin Spy Incident,” in which a group of artists, intellectuals and students in Europe with differing political views were accused by the then South Korean government in 1967 of spying for North Korea by regularly visiting the North Korean Embassy in East Berlin.

Due to the accusations against Yun, there’s been constant friction and opposition from a group of people who believe that the artist was a spy. This group holds protests whenever the festival is held, especially during the early years, when a new venue was being established, and more recently in 2018 when Yun's ashes were returned to Korea from Germany to be buried in the garden next to the concert hall during the festival.

Now in its 20th year, the festival organizing committee — Tongyeong International Music Foundation — said it had envisioned this year’s edition as being a lot more stable.

While the protesters holding pickets outside the venue are no longer there, the coronavirus decided to stay. Making matters worse is the war in Ukraine caused by Russia's invasion of the country.

Pianist Park Chae-young's recital is scheduled to take place on April 2, a day before the festival wraps up. [ANN DEAN]
Tongyeong International Music Festival's very own venue in Tongyeong, south Gyeongsang has two theaters — a concert hall and a black box. [TONGYEONG INTERNATIONAL MUSIC FOUNDATION]

“Even as I speak, our staff members are changing flight schedules, confirming artists’ attendance and conditions and informing ticket purchasers if there are any changes,” said Kim So-yeon, director of the artistic planning team of the Tongyeong International Music Foundation. “Because we planned this program with Chin two years ago, we planned it without any restrictions. We honestly thought Covid-19 would’ve been over by now. It’s not easy but we are doing the best we can and there are still so many confirmed programs and artists who are already here in Tongyeong so please look forward to this year’s 20th-anniversary event.”

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