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[Editorial] Orchestra's funding woes

Tour cancellation a blow to SPO and Korea’s reputation

The unthinkable has happened. The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra announced last week that it is canceling the seven-city U.S. tour it had scheduled for April as it has been unable to secure the 1.7 billion won required for it.

Perhaps this should have been expected when the Seoul Metropolitan Council did not approve the orchestra’s request for 1.5 billion won for the tour in December. The subsequent attempt by the orchestra to raise the entire 1.7 billion won through private sponsorship also failed as its fund-raising efforts are plagued by continued troubles, starting with allegations of sexual harassment and inhumane treatment of staff by then-president Park Hyun-jung in December.

The SPO’s overseas tours and record deals were the Seoul Metropolitan Council’s pet peeves against the orchestra and getting the budgets approved was not easy even in previous years. While the SPO Foundation was established in 2005, the 60-year-old orchestra still relies on city funding.

The ostensible reason for the Seoul Metropolitan Council’s refusal to fund the U.S. tour was that the SPO exists to serve the citizens of Seoul and it should therefore focus on activities here rather than going on overseas tours.

Indeed, the stated mission of the SPO is to provide Seoulites with the world’s highest standard of classical music and to improve Seoul’s brand power as an international city. However, the council members must be made aware that overseas tours and album recordings are opportunities to hone the orchestra’s skills and to be critiqued by an international audience. This helps to improve the musical experiences of Seoulites.

And improve the SPO did. The orchestra’s ticket sales more than doubled between 2005 and 2014 when it reached 92 percent. In 2011, it signed a five-year deal with Deutsche Grammophon to release two albums each year. The SPO was the first Asian orchestra to be signed by the prestigious classical music label, which was a remarkable feat for an orchestra that was relatively new on the international scene.

The SPO is being invited to tour overseas as international audiences discover this new powerhouse from Asia. In 2012, it toured several North American cities, including a performance at the coveted LA Walt Disney Hall, the first Asian orchestra to receive the invitation. The SPO was invited to perform again this April.

Last year, the SPO went on a European tour, which included a debut at the BBC Proms. It was the first Asian orchestra to do so since Japan’s NHK Orchestra performed at the BBC Proms 13 years ago.

Indeed, the SPO has been growing by leaps and bounds, making the U.S. tour cancellation even more unfortunate and damning. Not only has the SPO’s reputation been tarnished, it is likely to be mired in legal wrangling as some 65 percent of tickets have been sold. Worse yet, it is unlikely that the orchestra will be invited to perform overseas in the foreseeable future. It would not be an exaggeration to say the country’s international stature has been damaged primarily as a result of politicians’ limited perspectives.

To prevent similar incidents from happening again, a fundamental structural problem needs to be resolved. Budgeting has been a perennial problem for the organizers of cultural occasions, who have to prepare events without having secured funding. While the government approves budgets for the following year in December, the international norm is to prepare events at least two to three years in advance. This is one area where the country needs to adopt the global standard.

Politicians and bureaucrats should also refrain from exploiting their control of the purse strings for political reasons ― the arts and culture should be allowed to remain above the political fray. Cultivating the arts and culture requires long-term planning and a broad perspective. Their merits should not be measured in monetary terms alone, as the arts and culture enrich our lives in immeasurable ways and enhance the human experience.