Unsuk Chin returns to Korea to turn TIMF truly global

Award-winning composer Unsuk Chin is the new artistic director of the Tongyeong International Music Festival. She will lead the festival for the next five years from 2022 to 2026. [PRISKA KETTERER]

In 2018, Unsuk Chin left Korea and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, where she had taken on multiple roles as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence and an artistic advisor for 12 years (she was appointed to co-serve as an artistic advisor from 2016).

After returning back to Germany, where she resides, she opened up about her resignation. She said she was somewhat “upset” about how her “sincere duty, responsibility and passion” toward Korean citizens and young musicians was portrayed by some Korean media outlets who used words like “receiving preferential treatment” from the Seoul Phil and “exercising power” to stay at the same orchestra for more than a decade. Chin disclosed the amount of salary she had received from the orchestra to insist that her intention behind working in Korea was based on her passion.

That is why it took more than a year for Chin to finally say yes to the five-year term of the artistic director of Tongyeong International Music Festival. She thought it would be some time before she returned to Korea, not just because of her tainted time at Seoul Phil, but also because she had started working with a new opera.

“The festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and I wanted to give it a kick start to really position itself as a major international music festival in the world,” said Chin, during a press conference held at the Black Box theater abutting the Tongyeong Concert Hall in Tongyeong, South Gyeongsang on Friday.

“Among European musicians, the festival has already gained recognition. Over the past 20 years, many artists visited Tongyeong and performed here and they go back to their countries and talk about it.”

Chin said the feedback on international music festivals is very black and white.

“They either really like it, or really hate it,” she said. “I’ve seen no one talk badly about this festival. Now as I’m the artistic director they won’t say that, but during the past 20 years, I’ve heard so many things about the festival and everyone told me how they loved the city, how beautiful it was, but most importantly, how the level of the festival is top notch, not only musically but the whole organization. That’s really important because artists from around the world fly in and out and hospitality and detailed organization is really important for such large-scale international events.”

Chin believes Tongyeong International Music Festival has the potential to grow larger and become really international. That will be her main focus for the next five years, she said.

The theme she has picked for this year is “Vision in Diversity.”

“It’s not just for this year, but ‘diversity’ is the vision I want to realize during my five-year term,” said Chin, adding that she wants to reflect on what “diversity means in society with music.”

The award-winning composer said she never boasts about her works. But she said she can never stop boasting about the program of this year’s festival.

“I’m just so proud, I’ve been talking nonstop about it to people,” she said. “It’s so diverse that many people say they want to stay the whole 10 days here to attend every single concert. I’ve really put a lot of effort into drawing it up, even the smallest concert held at night or outside in the hallway.”

Norwegian cellist Truls Mork has been selected as this year’s artist-in-residence and Chin said his performances are not to be missed.

“I can say he is one of the best cellists in the world at the moment and it was really, really difficult for us to invite him to Korea so it will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to listen to his performance live in Tongyeong.”

Young American composer Andrew Norman is this year’s composer-in-residence. He’s also one of the world's rising contemporary classical music composers.

“When Koreans hear contemporary classical music, they seem to think it sounds too strange and difficult, but Norman’s music is very appealing and fun so it will definitely appeal to Korean audiences,” she said.