Violinist Dong-Suk Kang is, like so many people in the classical music world, caught in a Catch-22.
When the South Korean was trying to establish a career in the West in the 1970s, he competed as much as he was able, winning enough prestigious prizes to get noticed by orchestras and concert presenters. Now, as a veteran of the concert stage and recording studio, he is frequently invited to adjudicate.
But that doesn’t mean Kang likes what he sees and hears.
He admits that there are so many competitions out there now that medal winners often find themselves with no better prospects for a career after the gruelling ordeals.
“I did my fair share of them,” says Kang, who left his native South Korea exactly 45 years ago — back when the divided country was inward-looking, poor and run by a military dictator — to study at the Juilliard School and, later, at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
“Now I’m on the other side of the barrier, as a juror, and I rarely come across competitions where the results are fair,” he says. “Music is not like sports, where you can measure greatness. Comparing and making choices, it’s unnatural. But, for young people, there is no other way of making a career.”
The nature of competitions means that the nod usually goes, as Kang puts it, “to someone who doesn’t offend anyone rather than someone who is a clear choice. Strong personalities can please some people and offend others.”
The solution, according to Kang, is authenticity. In performance as well as when teaching masterclasses in Korea, Europe and the United States, the teacher insists that his pupils focus on convincing their listeners with fully shaped musical ideas rather than with what he calls “effects.”
“It’s not easy to keep integrity and go the way you think is right for yourself,” says the violinist.
Kang is in Toronto to present a concert tonight with friends from the Seoul Spring Festival, held in the South Korean capital every May.
He is joined at Koerner Hall by violinists Timothy Ying and Stephen Picard, violist Paul Neubauer, cellist Young-Chang Cho and pianist Youngho Kim.
The varied, all-French programme features a String Trio by the reliably upbeat Jean Francaix, the Piano Quartet No. 1 by Gabriel Fauré and the big-and-passionate Concert for piano and string quintet by Ernest Chausson.
Kang and his partners are helping out on the Academy side of the Toronto Summer Music Festival as well, spending a couple of days coaching the fellows and performing with the students at University of Toronto’s Walter Hall.
(For all the details on all the Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy concerts, click here.)
Playing and teaching on both sides of the Pacific, Kang notes some general differences among students here versus in South Korea.
Because of an enduring culture of respect (one he acknowledges is changing rapidly), Korean music students tend to be “more disciplined and obedient.” He says that they are easier to work with, technically, but often depend more on their teachers to provide interpretive guidance.
“In America, students have more ideas of their own and have more independence,” Kang concludes — although this sometimes comes at the expense of discipline. He admits that he emphasizes “old-fashioned values” in his teaching.
And the subject of competitions frequently comes up, so he does his best to provide practical advice.
Kang says he has noticed a pattern where entrants sound wonderful in the elimination rounds, which are usually performed with piano accompaniment in smaller halls, only to disappoint audiences as well as judges in the final round, which usually takes place in a large hall with full orchestra and a substantial audience.
“This is happening because these people are young and lack experience — and lack the personality to project,” says the violinist. “One needs to be larger than life.”
So he needs to show younger violinists how to achieve that, while staying true to the art of fine interpretation. He also does it by example, which should be on ample display tonight.
If you want to check out Kang, you’ll find him hard at work with Cho and pianist Sunwook Kim in Franz Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1, at the Seoul Spring Festival in 2009. You can watch the YouTube video here.
None of these three musicians is holding back in this occasionally ramshackle performance. But the emphasis on emotional push rather than technical polish turns out to be remarkably compelling.