KBS Symphony vs. Hahm Shin-ik
A great orchestra needs a great conductor. But how reasonable is it when a mediocre orchestra demands a world-renowned maestro at its helm and refuses to work until such a condition is met? This, in a nutshell, is what is happening at one of the nation’s premier orchestras.
The dispute between the KBS (Korean Broadcasting System) Symphony Orchestra and its chief conductor Hahm Shin-ik is a hot debate in the nation’s classical music community.
It’s hard to believe but there was a time when the KBS Symphony Orchestra was considered the top of its field in Korea, ahead of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra (SPO) and some 20 other professional orchestras around the country.
But since the mid-2000s, the KBS Symphony has been in a downward spiral which culminated in an unprecedented cancellation of its regular concert series a couple of weeks ago. The unfortunate incident is the first in its 56-year-history, drawing criticism from fans and the press, not to mention a heated public debate on online communities about how to lift the orchestra out of turmoil.
The KBS Symphony has virtually stopped functioning, particularly since the 2010 appointment of its music director Hahm Shin-ik, a self-made musician who rose from a humble background to become a faculty member at Yale University in the United States.
Hahm’s plans to elevate the orchestra have been met with outright contempt by the players, many of whom are refusing to rehearse with their chief conductor. Instead of participating in regular rehearsals, some members have staged “protest concerts” to publicize their case to remove Hahm from his position.
Protest against re-auditions
Upon taking the helm of Korea’s representative orchestra, he announced plans to ask the musicians to re-audition for their jobs.
Members of the KBS Symphony are some of the highest paid orchestral musicians here and their job status is secure until they reach retirement at 61. Needless to say, the musicians have fervently protested the plan and the re-auditioning has not been able to take place.
The musicians maintain that Hahm’s musicianship is simply not up to the level they expect of a chief conductor. However, the way in which the orchestra members have expressed their mistrust is far from professional.
According to a website of renowned U.S. music critic Norman Lebrecht on March 1, the KBS players have emailed every musician in the Yale Philharmonia, where Hahm also conducts, seeking his dismissal there by alleging he has falsified his academic and career credentials. Neither Hahm nor Yale has taken any action against these claims.
What is also unprofessional is how the orchestra is blaming Hahm for bringing down their performance level. There is no way an orchestra can make great music solely through the chief conductor’s capacity.
The email sent to Yale reads: “Since 2005, we have consistently demanded of KBS that only a world-renowned musician be appointed as the chief conductor and that performer vacancies be filled accordingly. However, KBS appointed Hahm Shin-ik, who lacks competence as a musician with an unclear professional and academic history, through a questionable selection process. As a result, our performance quality is significantly weakening, and consequently our pride and stability as artists are being undermined.”
With such haughty attitudes, even the most talented conductors could not come and perform miracles with the KBS Symphony.
The musicians need to remember that they are also responsible for the current status they find themselves in, by devoting more time to walkouts than rehearsing.
This is not the first time the orchestra has had problems with a successful Korean conductor based outside Korea.
One may also recall the sudden departure of world-renowned conductor Chung Myung-whun from the top post at the KBS Symphony in 1998. Chung had to leave only four months after his appointment due to disputes with musicians and management.
On joining the SPO, Chung replaced many members thorough auditions, bringing new talent from within and outside the country.
After denying the chance to work with Chung, the KBS Symphony has had a hard time finding a lasting leadership and worked with guest conductors until the appointment of Dmitri Kitaenko, who left in 2005.
The orchestra union is asking for a conductor “even more qualified than Chung.”
Hard times for orchestras
These are hard times for orchestras, with some renowned ensembles like the Philadelphia Orchestra going bankrupt and others struggling with the new demands of the digital age. There are real issues that the musicians of the KBS Symphony need to worry about, apart from exerting all efforts to oust a capable leader with fresh ideas for survival and musical growth.
Fans of the orchestra are hoping that it will resolve its differences and devote itself to making music once again.
Benchmarking efficient management practices of the other orchestras affiliated with broadcasters, like the NHK and BBC Symphonies will also help advance the KBS Symphony.