A 10 year-old girl was once asked “How about conducting in front of the entire school?” The teacher’s request changed the girl’s life. As she conducted, her hands held high, the entire school sang the national anthem under her direction. It was a sensational feeling and that was the start of her dream of becoming a conductor. She is the first woman conductor in Korea. The Sookmyung Times (SMT) met Conductor Kim Kyunghee (KIM), and talked about her life as the first woman conductor in Korea.
SMT At the time you dreamed of becoming an orchestra conductor, the field was generally controlled by men. What made you believe your dream would come true?
KIM At that time, even I never imagined a woman conducting an orchestra. However, the music critic Han Sangwoo, who attended the same church with me, encouraged me. He would often say, “You should consider conducting.” When I first considered being a conductor, I was afraid to step in front of an entire orchestra, so I studied to be a chorus master. He would say, “You would make a great conductor. Why not challenge for it?” His words encouraged to give it a try, so I changed my major to orchestra conduction.
SMT I heard you graduated from UdK*, the first Asian woman graduate. Presently, the number of women maestros is high, but incidents like the case of Choi Nakyung** show discrimination still exists in the music industry.
KIM When I applied to Udk and went there for the interview, one professor asked, “Why would a woman want to be a conductor?” I knew instantly that he hated women in the field, but I wanted to go there to study, so I responded with, “Women play every type of instrument. Why can’t women conduct? A woman has the aptitude to be a maestro.” My comment made the professor laugh. I think he felt my attitude was perhaps what was needed in the field. In fact, it is harder for women than men to be conductors because women might need to care for a family as well as work. Moreover, there still exist social stereotypes and male chauvinism that women must endeavour against. However, now that we have a woman president, the situation has really changed, but there still exists some people who are old-fashioned. As I have been conducting for 30 years, there were times I felt, “Ah, the period that though woman directs orchestra, people don’t feel anything came.” I am presently working as Deputy Director of Korean Conductors Association. I feel this stereotypical though often. In case of Choi Nakyung, she suffered real embarrassment. However, I feel if she had relied on her ability and fulfilled her responsibilities, the wrongdoings she endured would have disappeared. The situation worsened because she allowed others to get the better of her. I think if she broadened her attitude and embraces others, she could eliminate prejudice against her.
SMT Then, what strengths do you compared with men bring to the industry?
KIM A conductor is like a mother. The attitude of a mother is the drive conductors must embrace. The society of an orchestra is really complex and delicate because all people have separate personalities as they play their instruments. They also all believe they are the best at their instrument. The orchestras I directed made music that didn’t clash, which was my creed and final goal. Embrace others, and they will follow is the motto I spread. When a person says something degrading to the woman conductor, I accept the person’s right to an opinion. I embrace the person, for resistance is futile. Is it right that when I heard that who denies me, at first think about why he is think like that, not directly answering? When I first conducted in Busan, I heard a man say, “What is the world coming to that I must follow a woman conductor.” I had confidence. I remembered his face and when the orchestra performance ended, I vowed to become his friend. If I had been upset with his words, I would have annoyed him throughout the practice and nothing would have been accomplished. However, because I desired friendship, I took interest in him. I knew he would feel moved from my warm embrace. After the concert, he apologized with, “Thank you. I had a really great time. I never imagined working so pleasantly with an orchestra group before.”
SMT Last year, Sookmyung Philharmonic Orchestra performed at the Sydney Opera House. It was the first time ever that a Korean university’s orchestra performed there. You were conductor. How did that feel?
KIM It was like a dream. It is also an unforgettable memory for students. Our practices still remain fresh in my memories because we had to be the best. I was really thankful and we felt many great things more than we thought before. The officer at the Sydney Opera House didn’t come to greet us at first, but after enjoying the performance, he wanted to talk directly to each of us. I’ll never forget his words, “When can you come again?” He must have also been impressed with our performance. Also, I never expected that so many people come would attend. After appearing on the Internet, tickets all sold out. People who couldn’t buy tickets went to the Embassy, so news media in Australia called it Sookmyung Sensation. Tickets sold out every day. Even the Sydney Opera House never anticipated all tickets would sellout. We performed so well that getting tickets to our performance became a huge issue.
SMT Still, interest in Sookmyung Philharmonic Orchestra remains low even among SMU students. What are your thoughts on this?
KIM I know that classical music is not as popular as main stream music, but I don’t think classical music has to change to be popular because everyone’s personality differs. Musically, there are people who like popular music, and there are those who like classical music. However, across the generations, the number of people who enjoy classical music is higher than any other genre of music. Pop music may be trendy now, but classical music has a history that expands more than hundreds years. How it is intangible! Classical music is not dead. In our society, despite thoughts that classical music concerts should be free, people should buy tickets. These days, there are various types of concert. Classical music also should be approached by people through various means.
SMT Then, what is needed to make Sookmyung Philharmonic Orchestra be popular?
KIM An orchestra is the group of musicians, so the orchestra at Sookmyung will grow when there is cooperation and support. I don’t want Sookmyung Philharmonic Orchestra to be just our own festival. I hope people of all walks of life come and enjoy its concerts. To guarantee success, student interest is important, but promotion is also important. Sookmyung Orchestra would make more rapid progress with promotions. Also, the concert at the Arts Center once a year showcases students on stage to give students the opportunity to perform outside of school. Most audiences claim Sookmyung’s orchestra concerts are the best. People, who didn’t know about us before, become fans after attending a performance. It is my hope that Sookmyungians come out to a performance, even if it’s just one time. I’m sure they’ll become huge fans. This will make them and us happy.
SMT Finally, what does SMU mean to you?
KIM Happiness. Is there a happier person than I? As an alumna, with a continued connection to Sookmyung, I am really happy, and I want to deliver this happiness to all SMU students. I think my role at Sookmyung is giving students the chance to experiment and challenge themselves.
* UdK: Universitaet der Kuenste Berlin
** Flutist Choi Nakyung left the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, voicing racial and sex discrimination.
Kim Kyunghee (KIM)
• Department of Composition ’79 and graduate of Universitaet der Kuenste Berlin (UdK)
• Professor in the Department of Instrument in SMU
• Conductor of Gwacheon Symphony Orchestra and Sookmyung Philharmonic Orchestra
• First woman conductor in Korea