Myung-Whun Chung is a shining example of the creative vitality that can be engendered by a varied cultural background.
Vive les différences
Maestro Myung-Whun Chung believes in experience, not choreography. The man who will conduct the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France at the Emirates Palace on Friday says there is no formula for greatness: given the basic qualities of musical intelligence and talent, all that's needed is a lifetime of experience. Chung himself arguably has those attributes in abundance. He has conducted nearly all of the world's leading orchestras, from the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic to the Filharmonica della Scala, Bayerisch Rundfunk, Dresden Staatskapelle, the Boston and Chicago Symphonies, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic.
He was also the first music director of the Paris Bastille Opera and for the past nine years has been the music director of the Radio France orchestra. Korean by origin, American by upbringing, European in approach, for the past 20 years Chung has made his principal home in France In the UAE as part of the Abu Dhabi Classics season, the Radio Philharmonic will perform two of the best-loved pieces in the French classical repertoire. "Being a French orchestra, we thought it would be interesting to present two of the most beautiful works in the French repertoire," says Chung. "The first half is the complete ballet of Ravel's Mother Goose, which is really quite heavenly music. For the second half we'll present Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, which is a very well-known piece and also a revolutionary composition in its time."
Chung, who has never been to the Emirates before, adds: "We're all very curious and very excited about the visit." The Radio France Philharmonic was created in 1976 and the great strength of this team of 141 musicians resides in its flexibility: it can be broken down into several ensembles to adapt to different repertoires for instrumental groupings while retaining the power to deliver grand orchestral works.
Chung has been with the orchestra since 2000 and is acclaimed as one of the world's finest interpreters of French music. He says: "I don't know if I have a particular insight into French music, but the fact that I've been living in France for the past 20 years means that something must have rubbed off on me." Born in Korea in 1953, the sixth child in a family of seven, Chung claims he knew the sounds of classical music before he was even born. "Classical music is a more natural language to me than any other. My five siblings were already playing instruments when I was in my mother's womb. My parents weren't musicians but they were highly intelligent and sensitive people and they felt that right after the Korean war, it was important to give their children a rounded cultural education. We were introduced to most of the arts; it was just that most of us chose music immediately."
Chung began his musical career as a pianist and made his debut at the age of seven playing Haydn's Piano Concerto in D with the Seoul Philharmonic. He remembers: "The whole family started with the piano and everybody changed to another instrument, apart from me. When I was a child there were two things that I loved most in the world - piano and chocolate. Chocolate has faded into the background these days, as has the piano now, but music remains. My life is very simple really. There are two things that are very important to me - my family and music."
Two sisters would also go on to be professional musicians: the acclaimed violinist Kyung-Wha and the cellist Myung-Wha. "We used to play together regularly up until three years ago, when my violinist sister started to have some problems with her hand. But I've also been focused on conducting for the past 30 years, so there's been less time for the piano." He was eight when the family emigrated to the US, settling in Seattle to open a restaurant.
"There's an example of how things change," Chung observes. "We moved to the States because my parents were of the generation who sacrificed everything for their children's welfare. Now we have just sent our third son back from Europe to Korea to complete his education. That's how much the country has developed." Chung's musical studies continued in Seattle, then at the Mannes College of Music in New York. After Mannes, he followed in his sisters' footsteps to enter the Juilliard School of Music and went on to win a prize at the 1974 Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow.
Despite the years of study and dedication, Chung says he managed to fit in all the elements of a regular childhood. "I loved sports, I used to go out, chase after girls. I never felt that I missed out on anything." It took years before Chung was persuaded to abandon the piano in favour of the baton, but there was one figure he admired above all: Carlo Maria Giulini. When a post as Giulini's assistant with the Los Angeles Philharmonic was advertised in 1978, Chung auditioned and was accepted.
"I had many years of doubt before I gave up the piano to conduct. I thought a musician had to make a sound and also I thought this relationship with the orchestra was complicated, tense. Giulini showed me that it didn't have to be that way. For him there were two basic rules - a tremendous love and respect for the composers and the same for the musicians. He didn't let anything else complicate that. It was very pure and very simple."
Enlarging on his perception of the difference between a good and a great conductor, he says: "The basic qualities are something you take for granted if you have them: musical intelligence and talent. I guess you're supposed to have leadership qualities but what does that mean - leadership? I'm most comfortable when I can follow. "You can be a very good, very skilful conductor, but in my opinion what makes greatness is a lifetime of experience. In that sense it's very different to being a musician.
"You can't say that a pianist will improve with age, as physically you deteriorate. You can become a better musician but you can't become a better pianist. If you're a conductor, you don't have that inhibition. Physically, the job is very simple but you do have to have a lot of knowledge, you have to study a great deal. If I were to name the great conductors that I have known personally, it would only be Giulini."
After a stint as associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chung had his first professional opera engagement with San Francisco Opera. In 1983, he and his family moved to Europe, where the following year he became music director of the Saarbrucken Radio Symphony Orchestra and in 1987 principal guest conductor of the Teatro Comunale in Florence. He was with the Paris Bastille Opera from 1989 to 1994.
As someone whose profession transcends geographical frontiers, does Chung have any sense of a national identity? "There are three elements to who I am and the order I put them in is perhaps of some interest," he replies. "First, I am a human being. Secondly I'm a musician; although if I were dealing with a different form of music I might not be able to say that. And thirdly I'm a Korean. "The reason I've stayed in France for so long is the public and the musicians. French musicians sometimes have the reputation for being difficult but that's never been my experience. And the French public has always showed great generosity towards me."
For Chung, the universal language of classical music is part of its greatness as an art form. "Most music remains the same, for example, folk music and traditional music. Popular music changes according to fashion. But classical music has developed over a thousand years thanks to a series of great composers who formed a kind of relay. For me there is nothing comparable to this musical progress. Of course, some people are a little intimidated by classical music. They feel it is difficult, that they have to study to understand it. Of course, the more you know, the more you can appreciate it. But on a basic level, it communicates with everyone who listens to it. For that reason all children should study it."
Along with Giulini, Olivier Messiaen was Chung's other great guiding influence, and the French organist and composer dedicated his last work, Concert à Quatre, to Chung. "My musical influences have been many," he says, "but two stand out. In my eyes, Giulini was the closest a conductor has come to being a priest. He often said his only role was to serve music. It's like politicians saying they are there to serve the people, although how many of them actually do that? Giulini did it purely and wholly. He embodied simplicity, honesty, humility.
"Then I met Messiaen, who came closer to being a saint. It is rare to find music that is as personal, emotional and spiritual as Messiaen's. I often say that when you've had such inspirational role models, I'd have had to have been really stupid not to get something right." In recent years, Chung's humanitarian and environmental work has become increasingly important to him. He has always sought a closer relationship between the two parts of his divided country and has premiered the music of Isang Yun, a South Korean-born composer with similar views. When he won the Ho-Am Prize from the Samsung Group (worth $111,000), he donated it to the Korean Red Cross to alleviate the starvation in North Korea.
He also promotes an anti-drug message in his concerts, leading him in 1992 to be named ambassador of the Drug Control Programme at the United Nations. He was 1995's Unesco "Man of the Year" and in 1996 won the highest cultural award of the Korean government. Along with Radio France's Philharmonic Orchestra, Chung has been the Unicef France ambassador since September 2007. For Chung, it was natural that his career should take this course. "You come to the last stage of your life and you look to achieve some sort of balance. During the first third of our lives, we do nothing but take; we have to feed our bodies and minds. In the second part, hopefully we're lucky enough to do two things: we have our main working years and support a family. Thirdly and lastly, once the family is grown, I think it is important to give back as much as possible.
"Over the course of my life, I have received an enormous amount and I have a tremendous debt to repay. I would like to help the next generation. My Unicef engagement is quite special. When I was asked to do it, I replied that there was one condition and that was that the entire orchestra became ambassadors too. A conductor without an orchestra is nothing. I'm very proud of the musicians because they truly care about helping and they devote a lot of time and energy to it."
And what remains for Chung in terms of musical ambition? "I've reached a stage in life where I just want to focus on improving what I know."