Pianist Lim Yun-chan accompanies the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conducted by chair of the jury Marin Alsop during the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. (AP/Yonhap News)
Korean classical musicians are taking the world by storm. South Korean musicians have swept the top prizes at most major classical music competitions that have taken place in the past two months.
In the case of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which Lim Yun-chan won this year, South Korea has taken two golds in a row, as Sunwoo Ye-kwon won the competition in 2017. As competitions rarely honor musicians from the same country with their top prize twice in a row, the consecutive wins would not have been possible if not for the musicians’ unmatched talent.
More and more South Korean classical musicians are distinguishing themselves in a more diverse array of classical genres and making headways in performance as well as composition.
Sweeping prizes for piano, cello, violin, vocal music, string quartets
Lim holds his trophy after winning gold at the Van Cliburn competition on June 18 in Fort Worth, Texas. (provided by the Van Cliburn Foundation/WFIMC)
Before Lim, 24-year-old Choi Ha-young won the first prize in the cello category at the Queen Elisabeth Competition, considered one of the three most prestigious classical music competitions in the world, on June 4. In May, 27-year-old violinist Yang In-mo won the International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition.
South Korean musicians won authoritative classical music competitions one after another last year as well. For one, Park Jae-hong won the first prize at the Busoni Competition, a highly regarded competition for pianists. Pianists Hyung-min Suh (also known as Hans Suh) and Kim Su-yeon each took the highest honor at the International Telekom Beethoven Competition Bonn and the Montreal International Musical Competition’s piano category, respectively.
Even if they didn’t win awards, many South Korean musicians still made it to the semifinals and finals of classical music competitions. At the Van Cliburn competition this year, Lim as well as Kim Hong-gi, Park Jin-hyung, and Shin Chang-young were honored as semifinalists — which meant one-third of the 12 semifinalists were South Korean.
At the Queen Elisabeth Competition, Choi as well as Mun Tae-guk, Yoon Sul, and Jeong Woo-chan were selected to compete in the finals of the cello category, where a total of 12 cellists competed for the top prize.
In the past few years, more South Korean classical musicians made it to the semifinals and finals of major international competitions than did musicians from the US, Russia, and Europe — traditional strongholds of classical music.
Cellist Choi Ha-young won the 2022 Queen Elisabeth Competition. (provided by Kumho Art Hall)
More South Korean classical musicians are advancing to the top of their fields in a more diverse array of instruments, winning competitions for vocal musicians and string quartets as well as those for pianists, violinists and cellists.
Last May, the Arete Quartet won the string quartet category at the Prague Spring International Music Competition — an especially meaningful win, as the competition had not had a string quartet category in 16 years. Additionally, last June, baritone Kim Gi-hoon won the Cardiff Singer of the World competition hosted by BBC in the opera category, the competition’s main event.
Even in composition, composer Shin Dong-hoon was awarded the Claudio Abbado Composition Prize from the Berlin Philharmonic last June. He was the first Asian composer to receive the honor.
The recent rise of South Korean classical musicians is a unique phenomenon that’s unprecedented in the world. Referring to Lim, the host of this year’s Van Cliburn competition drew interest by using the expression “the Korea phenomenon.”
South Korea’s track record in classical music is remarkable even compared to other East Asian countries like Japan and China. Director Thierry Loreau of RTBF, Belgium’s public broadcasting station that has televised the Queen Elisabeth Competition for over 20 years, was so curious about the secret behind South Korean classical musicians’ recent successes that he visited South Korea several times and even made two documentaries about the subject.
Violinist Yang In-mo won the top prize at the 12th International Jean Sibelius Violin Competition. (provided by Kumho Art Hall)
At the backdrop of the rise of Korea’s classical musicians is the South Korean-style gifted education system. Korea National University of Arts (KNUA), which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, is the prime example.
Lim and Park Jae-hong honed their skills at KNUA and KNUA alone, never going abroad to study. Music columnist Lee Sang-min commented, “Other countries also have art schools, but KNUA is probably the only public educational institution that meticulously and intensively [helps musicians] polish the minutest details of [their] music.”
The Korea National Institute for the Gifted in the Arts (KNIGA), which the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism entrusts KNUA to operate, is also a system unique to South Korea. Lim, Yang, Choi, and Park Jae-hong, the driving force behind the Korean classical music wave, all attended KNIGA.
KNIGA provides intensive instruction to gifted students through middle school and weekend programs, admitting young musicians through auditions. The director of the institute Lee Sung-ju said, “When it comes to artistic talent, it’s very important to discover it early on and intensively train it.” He added, “The Juilliard School in the US also separately runs a preparatory division for gifted musicians.”
What’s different about KNIGA is that it’s affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. The institute currently has programs in Seoul, Tongyeong in South Gyeongsang Province, and the city of Sejong. A Gwangju program will open next year.
A poster of Lim Yun-chan from the Kumho Prodigy Concert Series of 2015, when Lim was 11 years old (provided by Kumho Art Hall)
Another factor that differentiates Korean classical music is the utmost devotion and full-blown support musicians receive from their parents. South Korea’s economy, now the 10th largest in the world, is also a huge consideration. Parents’ educational fervor, combined with their economic ability, seems to be what’s enabling South Korean classical musicians to make outstanding achievements in a field that requires highly focused training.
To be sure, there are shadows on the flip side of success in competitions. Intense competition can lead to an overemphasis on performance, and rankings can result in negative effects. Seeing young musicians struggle with the pressure while practicing all day isn’t always fun to watch, and can be reminiscent of the recent controversy surrounding the K-pop idol system.
Still, with the fall of the record industry, competitions are the only way for classical musicians to make their names and find opportunities to perform. This is why classical musicians can’t simply turn their backs on competitions.
Difficulties persist even after winning competitions. Invitations to perform domestically become few and far between after a certain amount of time has passed since winning a competition. Aside from a few who go on to gain international acclaim like Cho Seong-jin, most soon become overshadowed by other musicians who win competitions anew, as the domestic classical music industry is too small in scale to accommodate everyone. In other words, supply trumps demand.
Lee Sung-ju said, “This is the time when the country and our society should think about how [they can help] musicians who have made achievements through difficulties continue to grow and develop.”
By Lim Suk-kyoo, senior staff writer
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