The New York Times: Concerts Celebrate Isang Yun, a Musical Bridge Between Asia and Europe

April 18, 2017

Isang Yun was born in what is now South Korea in 1917. He moved to West Berlin to study in 1957 and was later jailed in South Korea, but he eventually became a West German citizen.

Today’s classical music world is not foreign to composers who fuse their Asian roots with Western avant-garde techniques, from Toshio Hosokawa to Unsuk Chin. But in 1966, when the Korean composer Isang Yun made his international breakthrough with the orchestral work “Réak,” at Germany’s Donaueschingen Festival, harmonies imitating an East Asian mouth organ were radical.

Born in what is now South Korea, Mr. Yun was an activist for the reunification of the North and South after the division of his home country in 1945. He moved to West Berlin in 1957 to study at the Hochschule für Musik. A decade later, he was abducted and held as an enemy of the state by the South Korean military regime of Park Chung-hee until protests from the West German Foreign Ministry and leading musical figures, including the composer Igor Stravinsky and the conductor Herbert von Karajan, led to his release. Mr. Yun became a West German citizen after returning to West Berlin in 1969.

If both North and South Korea claim him as a national composer, it was the North that offered him a platform during his lifetime — by 1990, the capital, Pyongyang, had established a festival, institute and ensemble in Mr. Yun’s name. He tried to move back to South Korea on the occasion of a festival in his honor in 1994, but the trip fell through because of complications with the authorities.

While much of the composer’s legacy has fallen into obscurity, concerts are taking place across Europe and South Korea this season to mark the centenary of his birth. Events include the Spanish premiere of the String Quartet No.1 by the Novus Quartet in Barcelona on Thursday and the Austrian premiere of the Cello Concerto, featuring Matt Haimovitz and the Bruckner Orchester Linz under the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, on June 12.

In South Korea, the Tongyeong International Music Festival — founded in Mr. Yun’s honor in 2000 — from March 31 to April 9 featured European players such as the Isang-Yun-Ensemble Berlin and the Arditti Quartet alongside the Tongyeong Festival Orchestra and Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra in works by Mr. Yun that included the wind-and-string quartet “Images” and the opera “The Dream of Liu-Tong.”

The Musikfest Berlin in September will feature Mr. Yun in four concerts, with the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra performing “Réak” and “Muak” alongside works by Hosokawa and Ligeti, and the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin pairing “Dimensionen” with music by Nono, Schönberg and Beethoven.

From Nov. 22 to 26, the Biennial for Modern Music in Frankfurt Rhine-Main will explore Mr. Yun under the theme of “Transit,” opening with the 2015 documentary “Isang Yun — In Between North and South Korea.”

In both his life and work, Mr. Yun bridged European and Asian cultures. His compositions adapt Chinese-Korean court music to Western instruments and forms while carrying explicitly humanist messages.

The Cello Concerto explores the reality of his imprisonment, “which has to do with life and death,” Mr. Yun said in 1986. The Double Concerto for Oboe and Harp, in a plea for Korean reunification, illustrates a fairy tale in which a cow herder (the pastoral oboe) and a princess (the ethereal harp) are stars that are banished to opposite ends of the Milky Way.

“Yun devoted his life to bringing people together,” Mr. Davies said by phone from Linz, citing not only a possible reconciliation between North and South Korea but also forgiveness toward Japan, which occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945. “And music was his language to do that.” According to Walter-Wolfgang Sparrer, a musicologist and founder of the International Isang Yun Society in Berlin, the Western education system prompted Mr. Yun to explore questions of identity.

By the 1970s, he had arrived at “a Beethovenian dramaturgy which moves from darkness to light,” Mr. Sparrer said, “but yin-yang symbolism was very important: He wanted his music to always be both black and white.”

The 1976 Cello Concerto can be understood as the struggle for survival of the composer, who was a cellist. Haunting temple blocks in the slow movement refer to a Buddhist burial rite that he heard during nights in prison, where he was sentenced to death. The percolating instrument returns at the end of the concerto, having the final word after the cello cedes to deathly, teeming violins and the open-ended call of two trumpets.

The layers of sound in Mr. Yun’s symphonic music are nevertheless distinct from those of European contemporaries such as Ligeti or Xenakis. “Yun took a single tone and built chaos around it,” Mr. Sparrer said, referring to Mr. Yun’s “main-tone technique.” “The tone replicates and becomes streams of calligraphy.”

Mr. Sparrer said that as Mr. Yun integrated the sounds and philosophy of his home into concerto form, some musicologists accused him of “pouring old wine into new bottles.” Mr. Yun’s musical textures also place extreme demands on performers. To this day, no major orchestra has recorded a cycle of his five symphonies.

Mr. Davies said the orchestral repertoire required not only thorough rehearsal but also “musicians who are willing to put in the time before rehearsal begins.” He added, “The musical language is not simple for Western listeners because it is harmonically and melodically from another place.”

The German-Korean cellist Isang Enders, who on Friday and Saturday is scheduled to perform works by Mr. Yun at the Heidelberg Spring Festival, said that although every note in the composer’s scores for cello was assigned specific dynamic indications, the player should not take the notation literally but rather keep in mind the resonance and melodic shape of traditional Korean music.

“He used serial techniques to translate that language into words we would understand,” he said of the 12-tone music Mr. Yun learned upon arriving in West Germany.

For Ms. Chin, 55, a South Korean composer based in Berlin, Mr. Yun’s personal idiom was an important source of inspiration despite the fact that her generation had little contact with traditional Korean music. She attributed the neglect of his work to both a weak infrastructure for modern repertoire and cultural stereotypes but was hopeful for wider acceptance of his music.

“It took a long time before Bruckner became part of the repertoire in France or Debussy was established in Germany,” she wrote in an email from Seoul.

Mr. Davies called Mr. Yun “a father figure for Asian-European music,” comparing him to 19th-century Western composers who elevated the native idioms of their countries into classical form.

“Concert life is completely international today,” he said. “The most interesting works give us a feeling of local color, of experiencing something we don’t know ourselves.”



Read at: The New York Times

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