[INTERVIEW] Belgian filmmaker explores why young Koreans are dominating classical music

[INTERVIEW] Belgian filmmaker explores why young Koreans are dominating classical music

Pianist Cho Seong-jin, who won the Chopin competition in 2015, is seen in the film “K-Classics Generation” directed by Thierry Loreau. / Courtesy of K-Classics Generation

By Park Ji-won

It is no longer a rarity to hear about Koreans sweeping international classical music competitions. Just recently, pianists Park Jae-hong and Kim Do-hyun won the first and second prizes, respectively, at the 63rd Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition in Italy, one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world.

Some may simply consider the phenomenon to be a result of the “tiger parenting” practiced in many Asian societies, a style of education in which parents invest heavily and push their children to high levels of achievement, which has been credited with raising children as elite lawyers, doctors or athletes. However, Thierry Loreau, a Belgian filmmaker and TV director who has been making films on classical music and filming the final stages of the Queen Elisabeth Competition for more than two decades, sees the domination of young Koreans in classical music competitions as a cultural phenomenon, labeling it the “K-classics generation.” Loreau has been trying to find out why Koreans excel in classical music competitions through documentary filmmaking.

[INTERVIEW] Belgian filmmaker explores why young Koreans are dominating classical music

Belgian filmmaker and TV director Thierry Loreau / Courtesy of Thierry Loreau

“Europeans think Koreans are good technically but that nothing comes from their hearts. But that is not true,” Thierry Loreau said during a recent interview with The Korea Times via Zoom.

“For Koreans, classical music is like a novel.”

He said he’s noticed major changes in the time he’s been watching Korean classical performers, even in the time between making his 2012 documentary “Korean Music Mystery” and his 2020 film “K-Classics Generation.”

“There is suddenly a new emotion and feeling, compared to my first film,” he said. “The teachers really understand that young musicians have to show their feelings. It is much more original and inspiring. Korean musicians have so many emotions and the music expresses them. Maybe they have the experience of K-pop, and they bring something new.”

The film traces the careers of musicians such as Queen Elisabeth Competition winners soprano Hwang Sumi and violinist Lim Ji-young, and the Esme Quartet, which won the 2018 Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition.

The Belgian found it unique that many of them are homegrown musicians raised and educated in Korea, while many musicians from China and Japan were born in the United States or educated mainly outside of their home countries.

He pointed out that the style of education in Korea, which unlike education styles across Europe is based on rote memorization and drilling, may have played a certain role in Koreans’ domination of classical music competitions.

“If you compare the two systems, the European and Korean systems are the opposite. In Europe, until you’re 18 years old, you develop your personality and then you go to university and you really work. In Korea, you have to play (from a young age) and are filled with information. But after 18, they are free of pressures from Korean teachers and family. I don’t know if it’s the best (education method), but it works,” he said.

“It is very difficult to say, but there is no money for culture in Europe and (classical music) education is going down. Only 50 percent of the classes can still be open. In Korea, I think young musicians are truly supported by the government and politics. Korea has the best schools. Everything is new. Kim Dae-jin, dean of the Korea National University of Arts, said he gave classes to Mun Ji-young from when she was 14 to 16 for free, and he never asked for money.”

[INTERVIEW] Belgian filmmaker explores why young Koreans are dominating classical music

Violinist Lim Ji-young, right, is seen winning the Queen Elisabeth Competition in 2015, in the film “K-Classics Generation” by director Thierry Loreau. / Courtesy of K-Classics Generation

Another highlight of the film is the fact that achievements tend to be made through the sacrifices of a devoted family who prioritize their child’s success as part of their “family project,” in addition to the hard work of the musicians themselves.

“The strongest moment of this film was the interview with Lim’s parents, because they cried in the interview and I was also crying when I was interviewing them. A young musician in the family is a family project. Her mother, she becomes a coach and other things so that Lim can think only of music. Maybe her father would work more to win more money for her. Maybe Lim is more important than her own parents’ lives. They’re so happy that she succeeded,” he said.

“It is fascinating to see that all the Korean musicians I met never complained about this. I think they are mentally very strong. It seemed that they have no doubts, which is different from Europe … Bae Won-hee of Esme Quartet thanked her mom for pushing her to practice nine hours a day since she was 9 because now she doesn’t have to learn techniques (anymore). So did Mun.”

[INTERVIEW] Belgian filmmaker explores why young Koreans are dominating classical music

A scene from the film, “K-Classics Generation,” by director Thierry Loreau / Courtesy of K-Classics Generation

He hopes that the film makes a positive impact in both Korea and Europe in terms of bring something new to the rather stagnant European classical music scene.

“My movie is (trying) to change the mentality of (Europeans). If you go to (classical music concerts in) Europe, nobody is younger than in their 60s. I think the only people who might bring us something new are from Korea. The center of classical music is shifting to Korea, as it is popular and trendy there. I think that it is good for Korean people to know that there are not only K-pop and K-dramas, but also K-classics, which are the best in the world.”

The film will be screened at the upcoming DMZ International Documentary Film Festival, which is being held in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, from Sept. 9 to 16. Loreau is scheduled to make a speech before the screening of his film.

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