The world-class violinist, Dong-Suk Kang participated for the first time as the judge for the 18th Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting. We asked Mr Kang, who performed with the world's leading Maestro since the 1970s and been recording on major labels, about the impression of the competition and his views on the music scenes in Asia.
─ Q: What was it like to take part in the Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting as one of the panel of judges?
DSK: It was very interesting experience for me. The Competition was perfect and well organized. It’s nice to see that the organizer was experienced and very dedicated in organizing the Competition. As a violinist, I took part in many violin competitions as a jury but it was my first time to become a jury for the conducting competition so it was a new experience for me.
─ Q: As a violinist, do you think you had a different point of view from others who are conductors?
DSK: We vote without discussions and of course as a violinist, I would see things differently.
But I think basically, the music is important. It’s not so much about the technique but as a conductor, they need to know a lot about music and that is the most important thing to consider. After that, it is the question of taste or personal preference. Obviously, there are some disagreements but that’s only natural. It is rare that we have unanimous decision.
─ Q: What were your impressions on the 4 finalists? Everybody, coincidentally, has their roots in Asia where 3 were Japanese and 1 was Korean-Canadian.
DSK: Perhaps until now, compared to other instruments like piano and violin, there weren’t as many Asian musicians or conductors. But it shows that the predominance of young Asian musicians is also starting in the conducting field.In general, I was impressed with the standard of, not only the 4 finalists, but all the 18 participants. I thought the level was high and they were all professional. As a soloist, I have worked with conductors but there are many so called “professional conductors” who are not as competent as these young people so I think they did very well.
─ Q: That’s a very interesting point. What do you mean when you say that “some conductors are not as competent” as the contestants?
DSK: Everything, I think. We saw these young conductors working with the orchestra, accompanying soloist and saw different aspects of conducting so we had a good idea of what they are like overall as a conductor.
─ Q: As a result, all the first, second and third prize winners were Japanese this time and there are more Asian people being involved in the world of classical music these days. Most of them study the Western standards of classical music but how should the Asians bring out their identity or should they bring out their identity in the world of classical music?
DSK: I don’t know whether one should do that in a self-conscious way. It should be something natural. Despite the Western training, the Asian musicians still have their culture and Asian background so it’s inevitable for it to come out somewhere in the music making. This is a good thing because as a musician, you need to have your own strong personality and character. So if you manage well, it can be something very positive.On the other hand, because of the difference in culture, Asians in general are brought up in a more restricted society so the values differ from the Westerners. Sometimes it can prevent the Asian musicians to open up and express themselves like the Westerners do without hesitation. They can be prevented from expressing oneself all the way but I think the younger generation is very different from the older generation so who knows. These days, there are no more barrier.
─ Q: Do you think that there are changes among the younger generation?
DSK: Nowadays, Western/classical music are also part of our culture, too. When I was young, there were not many Asian musicians. Japan was ahead of other countries in Asia in terms of classical music so in comparison to other Asian countries, there were lot more Japanese students studying in the States or Europe. Often, the criticism was that Asian or Japanese musicians are very good technically but they don’t really understand Western music and they don’t have the emotion for that etc. It might have been true in some cases but. So whether it is Japan, Korea or China, young people are brought up with that exposure. So there is no reason why they are less privileged than the Western people.
─ Q: How is classical music received nowadays in Korea?
DSK: In comparison to 20-30 years ago, the trend is that the number of applicants to music schools are diminishing. I think classical music has peaked, and now, a lot of young people turn to sports like golf or something else. Politically, they are promoting a lot of K-POP stuff. They know that they are very popular so they are using it to promote Korean culture.
─ Q: Do you think the focus is moreover on sports and entertainment?
DSK: Like in any field of work, people are more interested in aesthetic aspect including conducting. So there are many conductors with spectacular gestures etc. but it doesn’t necessary mean that they understand so much about music. But it is the question about knowing music and how to explain to the orchestra how the piece should be performed. It’s about getting to know the pieces in depth and becoming a great musician.
─ Q: As a soloist, what kind of ideal qualities do musicians seek from the conductors?
DSK: That’s a very delicate question (laughs). I think it’s a question of attitude because some conductors are not interested in concertos. They are preoccupied with all the symphonies so an accompanying soloist is often not their main concern. To work with accompanying soloist requires a special talent - to feel the same breath as the soloist and trying to accommodate all the wishes. So sometimes it can be problematic unless there is that process of collaboration.Among the judges here, I have played with 4 conductors - Mr Hubert Soudant, Mr Alexander Lazarev, Mr Ken Takaseki and Mr Tadaaki Otaka whom I’ve especially played with so many times, and they were all wonderful with the accompanists.
─ Q: Are there any general characterstics or qualities you see in the young musicians in general?
DSK: When I sit in as a jury for different violin competitions, I must say that I see that general technical standard has gone up so much in comparison to 3 decades ago. So the young people are very advanced in the technical ability these days, but perhaps it’s not necessarily equivalent to the depth of understanding of music. They don’t have something personal or own as an individual, nor do they want to say things so that’s perhaps what might be missing these days. It’s, of course, something that takes time. I often say that maturity of the understanding of music is not something that you can cook up in a pressure cooker in a short time. It just takes time.