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[Herald Interview] ‘Beethoven made it happen’

Pianist Son Yeol-eum looks back on MPyC experience

Pianist Son Yeol-eum, artistic director of the MPyC festival, plays the piano for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58., at the “Now or Never” finale concert held Saturday at the Alpensia Music Tent in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province. (MPyC)
Pianist Son Yeol-eum, artistic director of the MPyC festival, plays the piano for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58., at the “Now or Never” finale concert held Saturday at the Alpensia Music Tent in Pyeongchang, Gangwon Province. (MPyC)

Ludwig van Beethoven was more than just the theme of this year’s festival for pianist Son Yeol-eum. He was the hero.

Though hindered by the coronavirus and the heavy downpour, the 17th Music in PyeongChang (MPyC) successfully wrapped up its three-week run of concerts on Saturday, recording a 100 percent sold-out rate for its nine main concerts.

“I could have given up if it had not been the year commemorating Beethoven,” Son, the artistic director of the festival, told The Korea Herald during a phone interview Monday.

As 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, MPyC paid tribute to the great maestro, introducing his celebrated compositions.

“The energy and message of Beethoven are huge. I have always wanted to study him intensively, but it literally became ‘now or never’ -- like the name of the finale concert. It was Beethoven who made it happen,” she said.

The preparations did not go smoothly. To comply with government policies on COVID-19, concert venues, programs and lineups had to be changed. The virus situation even affected rehearsal schedules.

“Usually we would be in Pyeongchang for the whole time. But as we were worried about overcrowding, artists had to travel back and forth between the venue and Seoul -- a six-hour round trip -- for the rehearsals. The artists were really worn out by the end of the festival,” the pianist said.

The weather did not help. As the Alpensia Music Tent is a half-outdoor auditorium, the organizers could not control the level of humidity, endangering the condition of musical instruments.

“Regardless of the challenges, the summer festival had to be held,” Son said. The winter edition of the festival in late February had been canceled at the last minute.

“Canceling the winter festival was the right choice. Compared to now, we were not as aware of the virus at the time. We would not have properly dealt with the virus,” Son said. “Now, we are more educated, having learned about the necessary preventive measures.”

Though social distancing concerns have led to more presentations of small chamber music pieces over the past few months, MPyC, surprisingly, presented the nine symphonies of Beethoven.

“Most symphony performances are canceled. But we thought, perhaps we can make this work,” she said. “The music tent has a wide stage and it is not a fully enclosed establishment, which enables more orchestra members to go onstage.”

There was another silver lining. The virus circumstances allowed top-tier South Korean musicians who are usually based overseas to join the festival. Son, a much-sought-after pianist, has been in Korea since May.

With most concerts abroad canceled due to the virus situation, it is the first time in more than a decade that Son has stayed in Korea for so long.

This festival is a turning point for Son, she said. Now the prodigy-turned-virtuoso dreams of building up the PyeongChang Festival Orchestra, which she founded three years ago when she helmed the festival.

Reflecting that wish, Son shared the roses she received at the finale concert with the orchestra members onstage.

“I gave a rose to each section in hopes of showing that each section contributed equally to the performance,” Son said. “Pianists usually receive the spotlight alone, and are used to it. But I have learned to share music with others by working with orchestras.”

“Launching the orchestra in 2018, I had a wish that each one of us can feel that we are the stars of the festival. Often, conductors and invitees are highlighted in concerts, while orchestras are not. I wanted to tell the orchestra members, the sounds each and every one of you make gather and create music.”


By Im Eun-byel (silverstar@heraldcorp.com)
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