Sliding Seoul Philharmonic can’t find stand-ins for Chung

Sliding Seoul Philharmonic can’t find stand-ins for Chung


norman lebrecht

January 12, 2016

Apart from quick-fix Christoph Eschenbach, who flew in to open the season, the Seoul Philharmonic is struggling to replace its forced-out music director, Myung Whun Chung, and to fill its seats.

They had to cut top prices from 120,000 won ($99) with Chung to 70,000 won with Eschy and they haven’t been able to find anyone of quality to perform Mahler Sixth, so they are employing a staff conductor.

‘We managed to find a world-renowned maestro for the concerts; however, the maestro showed concerns over preparing the Mahler symphony in such a short time and requested a change of program,’ said an orchestra official today. ‘With much consideration, we decided to maintain the program and believe that our associate conductor Choi [Soo-yeoul], who has been working closely with the orchestra for a long time and has high understanding of the members, is the right person to conduct the upcoming concerts.’

It can only get worse.

choi soo-yeoul

Choi Soo-yeoul


  • Sumi Lee says:

    Christoph Eschenbach filling in for the deposed Maestro Chung is a real slap in the face to the many fine and sincere musicians, as well as Maestro Chung, who have been victims of the outrageous management of the Seoul Philharmonic. Many of my musician and music lover contacts in Seoul were outraged that Eschenbach would step in and help out the despised management of the orchestra and conduct the concerts that Maestro Chung should have himself conducted. Eschenbach has no solidarity with anybody and only, as my dearest Korean friend, and member of the orchestra, told me, he only cares about the money and nothing more.
    Fortunately, other international conductors won’t touch the Seoul Philharmonic in the immediate future and hence, they must now resort to a staff conductor. Indeed, it “will only get worse”, but many Koreans will never forgive Eschenbach, who took advantage of the situation, agreeing to replace Chung and then demanded more money than the orchestra could afford and then they had to lower the ticket price for Eschenbach’s concerts, as nobody wanted to come. It is shameful!

  • Homer says:

    I don’t think that anyone should be surprised that Eschenbach voluntarily replaced Chung with the Seoul Philharmonic. Desperate orchestras attract desperate conductors.

  • R says:

    I’ll do it, I know Mahler 6 backwards and forwards.

  • Tweettweet says:

    I believe that conductors could support the orchestra not by refusing to work with the orchestra, but to indeed do the job! What Chung has built up should not vanish, then Park would win. Let the orchestra flourish! I hope many world class conductors support the orchestra by conducting them.

  • Lee says:

    Eschenbach and Seoul Phil played Bruckner 9 and Mendelssohn violin concerto here in Korea..

    It is unfortunate that he has such a desperate reputation…
    When I watched him perform the Bruckner, I thought he executed it sensationally.
    Despite the ticket prices, I was very glad to see the concert hall really packed, which isn’t that rare in that huge venue anyways. Also must say I am proud of the almost nonexistent age gap of the enthusiastic concert-going audience in the country, compared to what I generally have experienced elsewhere.

  • Nick says:

    “It will only get worse!” How true and how sad! By how much will they have to drop the ticket prices for the Mahler with a staff conductor – and for other replacement conductors they will have to engage who are not well-known in Korea? When those who have stood behind the frightful Ms. Park start to realise that MWC’s departure will have a major on-going impact on the orchestra’s earned income, is there a chance they might then learn how abysmally they have behaved?

  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    Maestros not a myth, after all?

  • Robert von Bahr says:

    Isn’t this all rather insulting to the staff conductor, who may or may not be really good? Shouldn’t such comments wait until after his performances, if indeed they are under par? Remember, Esa-Pekka Salonen, then rather unknown, made his career by stepping in in the UK in a Mahler symphony.
    Robert von Bahr

  • SPOfan says:

    The attendance of the concert was about 2,300 and received rave reviews(Koreans can do a quick naver search to confirm this.) Granted, the Sejong Center seats close to 3,500, but is not the primary hall of the SPO, and more of a multi-purpose theater/auditorium instead of a concert hall. The SPO normally performs at the Seoul Arts Center, which seats 2,500. One could assume that if the concert was at the accoustically-superior Seoul Arts Center, it would have been a full house. I’d consider that a success, especially considering the circumstances.
    What I don’t understand is why last week the SPO was criticized for bringing in an A-list conductor, who was fortunately nearby and available, and again criticized for using the assistant conductor this week. What is the alternative? Going conductor-less? Cancelling concerts? Fold up and quit?
    Maestro Chung’s leadership will be greatly missed, no doubt, but I find these negative posts to be quite insulting and disrespectful to the 100+ wonderful musicians and staff who are working hard to keep the SPO up. I would hope that NL, and the many musicians and music-lovers who follow this site, would support the SPO during this difficult transition, instead of surrounding them with negativity.

  • Heeja Walker says:

    It is true that the situation for the orchestra’s musicians is horribly sad and difficult: in normal circumstances, the orchestra should be supported by visiting conductors. However, these are not normal circumstances, which is why such an approach would not be a support, but the contrary. In the present situation, one just can’t simply skip over to the agenda since that would contribute to demolish the orchestra further.
    In order to illustrate what I mean I have to describe the overall circumstances:
    what has happened here since one year has been a systematic smear campaign against Chung and against parts of SPO’s staff, orchestrated by the orchestra’s vengeful and politically influential ex-CEO Ms Park – culminating in the forced resignation of Chung, who had been pelted with never-ending nonsensical and silly accusations (which all, when looked at closer and with some logic, completely vanish into thin air.) The large majority of the Korean media, whose standards are, as is generally known, low (basically, there exist only scandal-greedy and clamorous yellow press) and which cannot be said to be truly independent (it is only two decades ago when the common rule was openly bribing journalists), has very readily jumped on that bandwagon. Last, but not least, SPO’s top management has been disgracefully inactive and has, by its complete indifference and opportunism, even acted against Chung and members of its own staff (about 13 ex-members and 17 present members) which had been terribly bullied and harassed by ex-CEO Ms Park. They have remained inactive even though SPO has been raided by the police, private handys were confiscated, staff has been questioned by the police (the interrogations still going on, resulting in a suicide attempt of one staff member and a hospitalization of another member) and two staff members had received travel bans (active since last April). Yes, you read it correctly. And all this just because one politically well-connected, manipulative and vengeful person, ex-CEO Ms Park had accused staff members of defamation. The police has searched the Kakaotalk messenger accounts of SPO employees (yes, this is possible in Korea) and these private chats have been quoted by Ms Park (which means, in turn, that the police has forwarded chats to Ms Park) and by the Korean press in a distorted manner. A musician who, on behalf of the orchestra’s musicians, distributed a circular to the audience at Chung’s final concert in Seoul, revealing what led to Chung’s resignation, has been summoned to appear before the police for questioning. 
    The frightful thing is that such things are possible in South Korea in 2016: money and power and political connections can buy everything. Envy and backstabbing and opportunism blossom.
    The culprits for this miserable situation are a) ex-CEO Park, b) police, c) Korean press, d) the SPO’s top management.
    Under such circumstances, the otherwise debatable notion that the orchestra should be boycotted is justified – as long as the scandalous circumstances have been fully cleared. Such a boycott would not be directed against the orchestra, but – on the contrary – would help the orchestra and secure its future. What has happened here is a smear campaign violating basic human rights; a fine orchestra has, in its core, been destroyed by the ex-CEO, a disastrously incompetent and vengeful person. The first step is to start to clear this terrible mess and to call the persons responsible for it into account.

  • Ross says:

    For those of you condemning Escenbach (or any other conductor) for stepping in, keep in mind that the musicians still need to work and play concerts. The musicians are victims too, and should not suffer over the irresponsibility of the management. Finally, the concertgoing public would also suffer if concerts did not happen.
    We certainly don’t wish for the complete demise of the orchestra.
    It’s all too bad, but adding further tragedies to the situation is not a solution.

  • Note from Korea says:

    People are happy to condemn the orchestra and whatever conductor who comes to fill in for Mo Chung.

    But have they considered the alternatives? The orchestra seems to have undying loyalty to Chung and many, if not most or all, want him back. Of course, a normal or orchestra may be able to go on strike, and this is something that may be expected of Seoul Phil, judging from the extreme and unfair accusations against Chung by one vengeful woman, that precursored his exit. But Seoul Phil does not have normal labor practices. There is no tenure. There is no union. It is reliant on tax money. Norman, if guest conductors are opportunistic and staff conductors are a disgrace, you seem to imply that a strike is the only just action to be taken. Let your common sense tell you what would happen if Seoul Phil decided to cancel, in protest of Chung’s resignation. The city is already up in arms about “wasting my taxes” and public opinion is rife with calls to disband the orchestra. Park accused the orchestra of being a puppet for Chung. Must the orchestra prove her right by using its energy only to win Chung back? Or should they prove those right, they who say that Seoul Phil is incapable of putting on a good show without its Maestro.

    The most wonderful thing about the Eschenbach concert was that it showed the fruits of Chung’s labor more than anything else. The circumstances under which he had to leave is disgusting, but what better compliment can be given to him, than the demonstration that this orchestra is what it is single-handedly because of Chung?

  • Brian from DC says:

    Here is what Eschenbach had to say on facebook.
    “Stepping in for Maestro Chung, I am fully aware that the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra has grown remarkably over the last ten years under Chung’s leadership, and I have been looking forward to working with the orchestra on Mahler’s First Symphony in July. I understand that the SPO is in rough shape and I would like to help.”

    I agree with those who say that going on strike or boycotting Seoul Phil concerts could well destroy one of the best orchestras in Asia. Fortunately, I’ve seen nothing to indicate other world-class conductors on the orchestra’s schedule will cancel their engagements: Eliahu Inbal, Lothar Zagrosek, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Hannu Lintu, Hans Graf, John Axelrod

  • Mandy says:

    Is this news, that assistant conductor is replacing the artistic director, even a surprise? Why bother?

  • Heeja Walker says:

    I certainly didn’t wish to insinuate that guest conductors with already agreed engagements should cancel their concerts. Of course not. Nor that anyone who decides to work with the orchestra should be regarded as a pariah. 
    Far be it from me, but it remains an ethically complex matter when, in such a situation, someone steps in for Chung’s concerts for this season. Still, that should be regarded as a personal decision and shouldn’t be outright condemned (although I can’t buy Eschenbach his words and although I still feel that guest conductors should inform themselves and consider carefully whether they will wish to replace Chung in in such a situation.)
    Be that as it may, the main thing is that it is illusory to think that a continuity could be guaranteed and that the orchestra would not be in a disastrous situation now with Chung and the concertmaster having been forced to leave. Yes, the SPO of course should continue in giving concerts, and the management should try their best to get competent conductors as replacements (which will be extremely difficult or impossible due to the prevailing chaos and, especially, due to the lack of time.)
    But one thing is clear: nobody will be able to master the situation completely and to give SPO back its former glory unless earnest, sober and groundbreaking steps are being undertaken to clear the present mess (and, that, unfortunately, can’t happen without washing the laundry.)
    There is a real danger that oblivion will win and that, in some not too distant future, the SPO will return to be the third-rate band which it was before Chung took over – with key players already leaving and sponsor money and subsidies and audience support dwindling. I, of course, much hope that this horror scenario won’t materialize, but we shouldn’t be deluded: in any case the SPO will have to go through a very dry spell. The DGG recording contract (which led to platinum recordings) and prestigious foreign tours – all this manna is now over with Chung’s forced resignation. It’s tragic – and a disaster! (But about these historical achievements, only deafening silence in the media. Almost no one speaks out and defends Chung and the orchestra, although it was a one-of-a-kind success story in Korean history and could be thought of being a real source of national pride…)
    And where will the orchestra wish to find a new competent music director – at such a short notice? Who will want to do the job when they learn about the snakepit named Korean politics and the madly childish media rage about Chung’s (comparatively modest) conductor fee? (For an explanation: Chung worked 4 months the year in Korea, receiving a fee of 800.000 USD per year – and that was deemed as scandalous. Strangely, Korean orchestras and organizers and media seem to have double standards: for instance, when Maazel once came to conduct SPO for one concert – that was before Chung’s tenure – he received a six-digit fee for just one musically insignificant and superfluous vanity concert. And some other foreign artists and agencies are also well-known for demanding ‘Asian special fees’ for concerts in Korea and Japan, which they are being granted without protest. Which also brings in my mind other unbelievably dumb media propaganda from last year: some smart alecs suggested seriously that now it’s about time to skip with Chung and to secure Dudamel as the SPO’s next Music Director…)
    Yes, I refrain from my suggestion of a boycott (which won’t take place anyway, the whole discussion about boycotting or not being purely hypothetical.) But I don’t refrain from my statement that one can’t simply skip over to the agenda as if nothing would have happened (and with all the madness still going on: police interrogations, defamations and defamation claims blithely continuing, outcome – as yet – unknown.) If a carpet is merely being swept over injustice, it will surely happen again and nothing will improve. The situation has to be thoroughly analyzed – otherwise, nothing can be learned from the past. Why was the demolition allowed to happen and how did it happen and who all are responsible? How can such a situation be prevented in future? How is it possible that Ms Park had been allowed to clamor in the media and to openly spread lies and vitriol for over one year, things only getting worse and worse like in an asinine pitch-black comedy! How is it possible that one (admittedly well-connected) person as Ms Park can cause such harm to a orchestra which should, as a matter of course, be regarded as a national treasure? All well-known problems of the Korean ‘so-called democracy’ notwithstanding, why wasn’t the front against the ex-CEO and her stooges stronger and more visible from the outset? Where are the fellow musicians and where is the intelligentsia and where are the music critics? And where is the orchestra’s considerable fan base? Where is the anger of all the music-lovers who have been deceived by Ms Park, by irresponsible journalists and by opportunist officials? Why does virtually no one want to defend the orchestra in public? (If one does, only off the record. The loud ones are against the orchestra and continue spreading hatred.) Mere lack of information or sheepishness … or envy?
    If the SPO’s top management and its board take their job seriously, they should finally start to call Ms Park to account and sue her for a very high sum of money. The claims should include at least the following: virtual enforcement of the last-minute US tour cancellations of the SPO (which led to high compensation claims for the orchestra for breach of contract); continuous defamation of the orchestra and its Music Director; scaring off sponsors and possible international partners; chasing away the orchestra’s Music Director and its international staff; turning the orchestra’s office – during her tenure – into a paranoiac, brutish and inefficient system of bullying, comprehensive control and spying; orchestrating police razzias of the orchestra’s office; vandalizing a state institution in the course of her personal vendetta; breaching data privacy; manipulating politicians, justice, press and public opinion alike; etc. etc. etc.

  • Robert von Bahr says:

    800’000 USD for 1/3 of a year – that’s 2,4 Million a year – comparatively modest??

    M O D E S T???? My foot!!!

    Robert von Bahr

    • Heeja Walker says:

      Oh my goodness, the trolls have arrived…

      Dear Mr. ‘Robert von Bahr’, please do learn some logical thinking and some arithmetics before talking total stuff and nonsense.
      Myung-Whun Chung’s annual honorarium ($800,000) in Seoul is a modest music director fee for a conductor of international stature for whom working in Korea is certainly no career gain (quite the opposite!)
      Compare with other annual chief conductor fees:
      Eschenbach (Washington) $2,728,671
      Muti (Chicago) $2,504,336
      Tilson-Thomas (San Francisco) $2,364,775
      and so on…
      (see, for instance, here:

      Besides, Chung earned this fee for 4 months of annual hard work in Seoul.
      Usually, chief conductors stay just 2-3 months a year at their orchestra and they still earn more.
      Korea should be grateful for Chung for the service he has done for that country.

    • Heeja Walker says:

      Dear Mr. (or Ms.?) ‘Robert von Bahr’, an annual fee of 800.000 $ means an annual fee of 800.000 $. OK?
      Annual means: “1. happening once a year, 2. covering the period of a year” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary’)
      Got it?

      Now, how about applying some logical thinking & some arithmetics (and learning better English)?

      • seoulmusic says:

        I am pretty sure that prior to last year’s controversies, Maestro Chung’s salary was at least double the amount you stated. Not saying there is anything wrong with him being paid that much, but $800k is just inaccurate.

        • Heeja Walker says:

          Oh my god… What you are saying is simply inaccurate. Besides, your use of words is revealing. For what reason are you ‘so pretty sure’? Mere prejudices from your side – no arguments, only nonsensical emotions.

          The fact is that Chung’s fixed salary as Music Director in Seoul was $230.000. On top of this, he received a fee for each concert with the SPO. His fee for one concert was about almost $45,000. Which makes for an overall fee of $800.000 (in some years, it was even less, I presume). So, what you state is sheer nonsense.

          Moreover, this whole discussion about Chung’s fee is ridiculous and, no doubt, based on personal envy („Why am I not earning that much?!?“) and nothing else. In many European countries, it is almost a taboo to discuss conductor (and other) fees. (For instance, such a serious conductor as Riccardo Chailly refused to become Chief Conductor of the opera house in Valencia when the amount of his annual fee – $1,9 million – was published by the media … and quite understandably so.) All this clamor about Chung’s fee in Korea is rather schizophrenic: there exists certainly lots of injustice and abuse of power in Korea (if we take under close scrutiny what some well-connected Korean musicians and professors and businessmen and politicians are doing, there exist some really grave cases of corruption and of the abuse of power, an excellent example of the latter being SPO’s disastrous ex-CEO Hyunjung Park.) However, this is certainly not such a case – this absurd and groundless scapegoating of Chung is just dreadful.

          The simple fact is that there exists an international market for conductors of Chung’s calibre and that there exist certain tariffs. This is not the place to discuss per se on whether such tariffs are debatable or not, but if people find such tariffs unacceptable, the logical solution would be that one should not invite any foreign conductors or soloists (of whom many demand much, much more money than Chung) to Korea any more. To be very consequential, we should perhaps get rid of the subvention of opera houses and orchestras, too. And so on, and so on. Do we really want this to happen? Decide for yourselves. (Moreover, if we think in this manner, shouldn’t we also scandalize the fact that – just to name one example – Guus Hiddink, the former trainer of South Korea’s national soccer team, received a $1.76 million cash bonus, a free holiday home, free first class air travel anywhere at any time on Korean air, luxury limousine, free insurance and that he was made an honorary Korean citizen…?)

          To return to the topic of SPO: what would be the alternative? A Korean orchestra can’t attract any international conductor of Chung’s stature for the post of the Music Director. Reasons: the chaos of Korean politics, the rage and the clamor of the media, management chaos, late-term planning, the public opinion prone to manipulation, the remoteness of Korea, etc etc) Chung’s decision to come to Korea to build up the SPO was quite a selfless decision, to say the least. During the 4 months per year he stayed in Korea, he could have had more attractive concerts with some of the world’s most-renowned orchestras who hold him in high esteem. Besides, Chung build the SPO up into a very fine orchestra and secured them -– as the DGG exclusive artist he is – concerts at the world’s major concert halls and a sensational 10-CD-contract with DGG (all of which is now, sadly, over…)

          What is also really strange that the fee becomes the subject of such an angry discussion while the human rights violations committed by Ms Park (and her disastrous record as a CEO) is being met with a shrug of shoulders.

          Finally: if people want to clamor about the conductor’s annual salary, they should rather attack the government and the orchestra’s management (including the amazing ex-CEO Ms Park) than the Music Director who is neither a CEO nor an accountant. When a conductor’s manager proposes a fee, it is the decision of the City of Seoul and the orchestra’s management whether they want to pay that fee or not. Nobody forces them to have a world-class conductor and to have good music.
          To put it simply: Korea has to decide which price it wants to pay for high culture. For my part, I think that an excellent orchestra and a world-class conductor are invaluable messengers for a country’s image abroad. The really sad thing is that there are a great number of music lovers and musicians in Korea who are genuinely sad and shocked about the uniquely dreadful way how Myung-Whun Chung and the SPO have been treated. They have no voice in this police-like state.

          • Ross says:

            I agree with you that Chung’s compensation was quite reasonable when compared with other music director’s who spend half as much time with their respective orchestras for much more money.
            I also completely understand your stance on Ms Park. It’s too bad this woman exists and the system favors her.
            But any solution that involves interrupting the flow of the music is a terrible idea. The musicians and audience should not suffer be because of Park.