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[The Arts and COVID-19] ‘New normal’ orchestra in tune with COVID-19 era

SPO head Kang Eun-kyung envisions an orchestra fit for uncertain times

Kang Eun-kyung, president and CEO of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, poses for photos before an interview with The Korea Herald on Aug. 12 at the orchestra’s office in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Kang Eun-kyung, president and CEO of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, poses for photos before an interview with The Korea Herald on Aug. 12 at the orchestra’s office in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra is seeking the flexibility to overcome the obstacles and adapt to the changing times.

In mid-February, when the orchestra’s new Music Director Osmo Vanska led two concerts in Seoul, not many could have known that that would be the orchestra’s last live performance for many months.

As the COVID-19 outbreak swept the nation, many live music performances were canceled or postponed.

When the SPO returned to the stage in mid-June, the orchestra looked different.

All the musicians except for those playing wind instruments were wearing masks, including the conductor. They were seated 1-3 meters apart. Transparent plastic barriers were placed in front of the wind instrument players.

“The biggest concern was the health of the orchestra,” Kang Eun-kyung, the president and CEO of the orchestra, told The Korea Herald during an interview at the SPO office at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in central Seoul.

“The music director and I agreed that the health of the orchestra members and the quality of the performances could never be compromised,” said Kang, who was appointed to lead the orchestra in March 2018.

With the new formation -- created after referring to the manuals of the Deutsche Orchestervereinigung, an association of orchestras in Germany -- the SPO was billed as a “new normal orchestra.”

“I wanted the performers to feel as safe as possible onstage. They were to return to the stage after a four-month break from in-person performances. Without careful instructions, some could have felt uncomfortable in the new situation,” she said.

“The performance was incredible, but I also cannot forget that first bowing during the first rehearsal. It was epic -- just the sound of the music. The tension before the first sound transcended into a catharsis, making me go through an almost spiritual experience,” Kang said. 

The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Osmo Vanska, performs onstage at the Lotte Concert Hall in eastern Seoul on June 18. (SPO)
The Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Osmo Vanska, performs onstage at the Lotte Concert Hall in eastern Seoul on June 18. (SPO)

During the lockdown, the SPO continued to work on projects in collaboration with other institutions, while reaching out to audiences at home via online performances.

The orchestra connected online with the Minnesota Orchestra, which Vanska has led for nearly two decades. The Minnesota Orchestra was scheduled to perform in South Korea in June, but the trip was canceled as the virus situation restricted global travel.

Instead, the two troupes came together on screen, performing “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Variations on an Original Theme Enigma. The SPO members performed in an empty concert hall, while the members of the Minnesota Orchestra joined in individually. The 4 1/2-minute clip was released via YouTube on Aug. 4.

Another groundbreaking project was the release of orchestral versions of K-pop songs. Working with S.M. Entertainment, a major K-pop entertainment agency, the SPO in June released orchestral versions of Red Velvet’s “Red Flavor” followed by the release of Jonghyun’s “End of a Day,” paying tribute to the late member of SHINee, in July, on local music streaming platforms.

On Aug. 26, the SPO released a chamber music album under the Decca label. The album, “Collage,” comprises works recorded by the SPO members from 2017-2019.

“The SPO has always been open to working with new forms of music, from video games to animations and other genres. To be a 21st century orchestra, digital friendliness is a must-have quality,” Kang said.

“For the SPO, the ultimate goal is to run an online archive like the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall,” Kang added, referring to the paid subscription service run by the prestigious German orchestra.

“The coronavirus has allowed us to learn the know-how of going digital and to go through trial and error,” Kang added. “We are creating an online archive of our concerts, hoping to bring our fans to the SPO digital concert hall one day.”

Due to the strengthened social distancing measures in place since mid-August, the SPO has canceled all of its in-person performances in August and some in September. A member of the orchestra was diagnosed with COVID-19 after giving private lessons to an arts high school student, leading to an abrupt cancellation of its Liberation Day concert.

For now, the SPO will be pursuing “contactless projects” to be enjoyed at home. At the same time, however, the orchestra is awaiting a return to the stage at the earliest possible date.

“In the ‘with-coronavirus’ era, we have to do what we can do, while protecting the safety of everyone,” Kang said. “Though the online environment will make progress and develop, I am certain that nothing can ever replace the joy of live performances. The SPO will be an orchestra that is prepared to adapt to new environments.”

By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)
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