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Fandom emerges in classical music scene

Classical musicians enjoy rock star status among groupies

When pianist Lim Dong-hyek finished his two-hour-long recital on Feb. 18 at Seoul Arts Center, a venue exclusively for classical music suddenly turned into a pop concert scene with the audience screaming for an encore.

The hall with 2,500 seats was completely packed ― mostly with females ― and they didn’t stop shouting, urging the artist to play another piece, and then another.

At the end, Lim presented three encores, mostly romantic Chopin. But the audience refused to go home. Hundreds waited for more than an hour to get Lim’s autograph even after the concert hall door was closed.

“He has been a star to many female fans for years. Not only his handsome appearance but his virtuoso piano performance, has expanded his fan base across the country, not only in Seoul,” said Yoon Hye-jin, a publicist for Credia, one of the classical music management companies here.

Lim, 27, is one of several classical music artists idolized by a huge fan base of female fans. Like groupies for K-pop stars, there are a large number of classical music fans who enthusiastically express their affection to the country’s young artists like violist Richard Yongjae O’Neil and pianist Kim Sun-wook. 
Pianist Lim Dong-hyek signs an autograph for one of his fans after his recital at the Seoul Arts Center on Feb. 18. (CREDIA)
Pianist Lim Dong-hyek signs an autograph for one of his fans after his recital at the Seoul Arts Center on Feb. 18. (CREDIA)

Lim’s online fan cafe on Naver, for instance, has more than 40,000 members who upload photos and video clips of Lim’s performances. He is currently holding a series of recitals in 11 cities until March 2 to celebrate a decade as a professional pianist. Tickets are almost sold out, his agency added.

Such fandom is changing the country’s classical music scene, creating a new audience base and also boosting CD sales.

“The fandom has definitely changed the country’s classical music scene in good ways,” said Lee Sang-min, senior manager of classic and jazz at Warner Music Korea.

“It created new and young audiences interested in classical music through artists they love. Fans who were teenagers 10 years ago now have grown up and make enough money to buy CDs and tickets for classical music concerts,” he said.

It is really hard even for internationally acclaimed artists to sell more than 10,000 copies of their album in the country’s classical music market, not only because of falling interests in the genre but also the rapidly growing online music market. But Lim has sold more than 10,000 CDs whenever releasing an album, Lee of Warner Music Korea said.

Foreign artists also love to play for enthusiastic audiences in Korea, something they would never experience outside of Korea.

“This kind of fandom culture does not exist in other countries. And this is why they want to come back to Korea to feel the energy from the Korean audience.”

All-male chamber ensemble Ditto, led by violist Richard Yongjae O’Neill, is another set of example how artists are trying to get closer to younger listeners. The four members were surprised by music scene here in that classical artists can become celebrity figures. Dressed in suits, the handsome artists have been growing in popularity in and out of the country.
Ensemble Ditto. (CREDIA)
Ensemble Ditto. (CREDIA)

“There have been mixed views on making visual appeals by classical artists and doing something experimental with classical music. But we’ve been at least trying to create new audiences by doing so,” Kang Da-mi, publicist for Credia that organize Ditto’s performance.

The ensemble holds an annual summer music festival where rising classical musicians perform and broaden the appeal of chamber music among the public. This year, it will take place from June 22 to July 8 at the Seoul Arts Center’s Concert Hall, LG Arts Center and Sejong Center for Performing Arts. Now in its sixth season, the 2012 Ditto Festival’s theme will be Russian chamber music with composition by Russian composers Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and Shostakovich.

Titled “White Night,” the two-week-long music festival will offer a special collaboration by the ensemble Ditto and Mason Bates, a famous contemporary composer, and DJ. Bates, renowned for his ability bridging classical and popular music was commissioned for the 2011 YouTube Symphony Orchestra. The chamber ensemble plans to perform in Tokyo on May 3-5.
Pianist Kim Sun-wook (CREDIA)
Pianist Kim Sun-wook (CREDIA)

Kim Sun-wook is a star pianist who has been building a huge fan base here after winning the prestigious Leeds Competition in 2006. The 23-year-old will perform Beethoven’s 32 sonatas, considered some of the greatest achievements ever composed for piano, for two years starting next month. The first stage of the planned eight recitals will be held at the LG Arts Center in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul, on March 29. The pianist, currently studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London, will play the first four pieces in chronological order for his first recital at LG and will continue performing the rest at the same venue until next year.

By Cho Chung-un (