The next Chung Myung-whun?

2013-07-22 : 17:06
Chang Han-na will conduct symphonies by Mahler, Schumann and Dvorak during the upcoming “Absolute Classic Festival.”
/ Courtesy of Seongnam Arts Center

Cellist Chang Han-na is Korea’s best shot at having world-class conductor

The “Absolute Classic Festival” will take place at the Seongnam Arts Center from Aug. 18 through Aug. 31.
/ Courtesy of Seongnam Arts Center

By Do Je-hae

Korea has produced some exceptional instrumentalists and singers. But the country has had little success with conductors, except for the pianist-turned conductor Chung Myung-whun.

It seems that the former cello prodigy Chang Han-na is Korea's best hope for repeating the level of recognition Chung has enjoyed as a conductor and opera director since the 1980s. A Deutsche Grammophon artist, he is the only Korean conductor to achieve international recognition after holding regular posts in Los Angeles, Milan, Paris and Tokyo.

Both musicians share a common ground in that they both started as child prodigies of their respective instruments and received elite music education in the U.S. They both took up conducting professionally in their early 20s.

Chang is a woman and only 30 years old, but no other Korean musician of her generation, male or female, has built such an impressive resume as a conductor.

The highlight of Chang's conducting career will take place later this year, in her debut with the prestigious Dresden Staatskapelle.

The Staatskapelle is one of the world's oldest orchestras founded in 1548 formerly led by such iconic conductors like Karl Bohm, Rudolf Kempe, Kurt Sanderling and Bernard Haitink. Incidentally, Chung serves as the Staatskapelle's first-ever principal guest conductor, effective as of the 2012-2013 season.

After almost 20 years of international career as a star cellist, Chang will officially become a full-time conductor in September as music director of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra.

This indicates that conducting will take priority in her schedule, rather than solo activities as a cellist. In doing so, she is setting herself apart from other young star soloists who conduct on the side like the great violin virtuoso Maxim Vengerov. She conducted her first opera in 2010, also a rare move for a soloist-turned conductor.

Ahead of launching her first season with her Qatari orchestra, Chang will visit Korea for her annual music-sharing project called "Absolute Classic Festival” next month.

Through this youth orchestra initiative, she has worked with hundreds of young musicians under 33 years of age, establishing a temporary orchestra for a series of concerts each summer. The project has taken place every year at Seongnam Arts Center in Gyeonggi Province since 2009.

Chang has served as the founding artistic director of the "Absolute Classic Orchestra." Organizers have selected 100 musicians, most of whom are training to become professional musicians to fill the ensemble.

"These musicians combine passion and skill, making the Absolute Classic Orchestra one of the freshest and most dynamic force in the Korean classical music scene," Chang said in a statement.

This year's program shows how much Chang has grown as a conductor since she began taking lessons with U.S. maestro Lorin Maazel seven years ago. In particular, she will conduct a Mahler symphony for the first time.

She will conduct Mahler's first symphony "The Titan" on Aug. 24. Chang will also conduct Schumann's fourth symphony on Aug. 18 and Dvorak's ninth symphony on Aug. 31.

After wrapping up the festival, Chang will arrive in Qatar to conduct her inaugural concert as music director on Sept. 21. She has chosen the youthful and joyous seventh symphony of Beethoven as the centerpiece of the inaugural concert.

"I am tremendously excited at the prospect of calling Doha and Qatar Philharmonic my musical home for the next few years. This has always been a dream of mine to have a musical family, a permanent basis where I can make a more lasting contribution," Chang said.

The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra was founded by the Qatari royal family in 2007 to spread classical music in the Arab world.

After that, she will perform with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra which has named Chang as its principal guest conductor from the beginning of the 2013-14 season. In that capacity, she will conduct with the 104-year-old Norwegian orchestra on a regular basis.

As she builds her resume as a conductor, it will be interesting to see whether she continues to grow as a cellist. The great pianist Daniel Barenboim switched to conducting in his 20s, but he has constantly developed as a pianist as well. But Barenboim's case is extremely rare.

Chang first rose to international stardom when she became the youngest ever winner of the International Rostropovich Cello Competition in 1994 as a 12-year-old. She moved to New York to continue training at the Juilliard School and majored in philosophy at Harvard University. An exclusive artist with EMI, she has performed with top orchestras in the U.S. and Europe.

For more information on the "Absolute Classic Festival," visit