Conducting a fairytale – Shi-Yeon Sung

Posted on December 1, 2010 by


Imagine a conductor in a shiny black suit on the stage, breaking the silent tension and the stillness of a frozen orchestra by waving a baton. Is that person in your imagination a ‘she’ or ‘he’? A conductor is someone who is directing art performances by musical ensembles such as orchestras, choirs, chamber ensembles or opera singers. The job requires outstanding talent and charismatic leadership, characteristics which used to be associated with men up until now. Ms. Shi-Yeon Sung is one of the few female conductors, bringing a fresh breeze to classical music. She has won several prestigious competitions in the past few years. Now she is receiving invitations from all over the world of people who want to witness her dramatic, narrative and passionate conducting.


I used to think that being a conductor was the easiest job in the world. The person received applause by doing nothing but waving a baton – not even by playing an instrument! I had no idea about how tough the job is until I met Sung. To perform one symphony, the conductor has to study a music book which is as thick as a novel, containing the scores of all instruments. Conductors have to make sure that each part is played perfectly according to the sheets and orchestrate the different parts in order to create harmony while encouraging the musicians as to bring out the best in them. On a concert day, the conductor also has to create the right mood for each different piece and make the musicians and the audience be drawn into the piece.

Sung, checking her schedule with her smartphone seems to have a very tight schedule of moving around to conduct different repertoires with different orchestras. Born in 1975 in Busan, the South Korean port city, she started taking piano lessons when she was four. She studied in Germany and Switzerland and took up advanced conducting studies under Jorma Panula at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm in 2006. She has been appointed as assistant conductor of the Seoul City Orchestra since 2009. Before then she was one of the two assistant conductors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for two years which is one of the “big five” orchestras in the U.S.. She was the first woman ever to hold the position.

She is closing the autumn season with Sibelius and Stravinsky, conducting performances by local orchestras in the Swedish cities of Stockholm, Uppsala and Malmö. The interview was conducted after the rehearsal for the performance called ‘Myter och sagor’ (Myths and legends) on October 7th 2010 in Uppsala.


You actually earned your masters degree in piano performance. Why did you switch to conducting? I presume it must have been hard.


If you play a wind or string instrument, you have many chances to experience an orchestra but a piano is kind of a solo instrument which made it hard for me. However, I have been influenced by my teacher who taught me to think broader and to not be afraid of new challenges. I became interested in conducting while I was trying out many different musical areas. I changed my path at a comparably late stage after finishing my master. Moreover it was especially challenging to be a conductor as an Asian woman. Challenges made me try harder to broaden my study. When I study pieces, I research related areas such as history, sociology, art and so on in order to internalize the flow with better understanding. When it comes to music, there is no end to its study.


You have been working as an assistant conductor for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The terminology of “assistant conductor” is quite new to me. What does that job entail?


In Europe, there are no assistant conductors. You can find the position mostly in the U.S. and the job differs from an orchestra conductor. Generally an assistant conductor is leading children’s orchestras or light programmes. In my case, the job at the Boston Symphony Orchestra was different because my principal responsibility was to be an understudy which is comparable to a stand-in. In case a scheduled conductor cancels his performance, the assistant steps in. It required attending every rehearsal in order to learn how they interpret the piece which was a great opportunity for me at the same time.


I know you had to replace the original conductor several times. However, what did you do when your interpretation differed from the scheduled one?


“That did happen many times and it was really tough. In that case, I normally had to conduct without having rehearsed with the orchestra myself. It is almost impossible to pass my reading on to a team in one day in order to make them follow. I tried to conduct according to the interpretation of the original conductor as I had learnt during the rehearsals. Now I am wondering how it would have been like if I had led them with my interpretation. It might have been better, I suppose.”


You were the first female winner of the Georg Solti Conductor’s Competition in 2006 and then you won the Gustav Mahler Competition in 2007. On what did you spend your prize money?


(Laughter) “I seriously have no idea. I first got a €15,000 prize and then a €10,000 prize but I don’t know where it went. I am sure I spent it but don’t know on what. I am not very meticulous with money to be honest.”


Do you have any favorite conductors?


“I like Claudio Abbado. He did many operas. I had a chance to direct the opera “L’Orfeo” in Stockholm. It was a very special experience. When you conduct an opera, there are so many things to take care of in addition to the orchestra, such as the stage, costumes and singers. What makes it more challenging is the language which is usually Italian or French. But I have to admit that the whole process was fascinating. Carlos Kleiber is also one of my favorites, I appreciate his accuracy, passion and unrestricted attitude.”


Kleiber is famous for being a perfectionist. Are you?


“Not at all, I am far from being a perfectionist. I often forget things when I am concentrating on a note. Kleiber is known for meticulously checking the site and the sound, but I don’t think I would be able to be like that. I several times had the chance to meet some of the alleged conducting-geniuses. They know the piece simply by scanning through the complicated symphony sheets and can speak several languages fluently. James Levine, the Boston Symphony Orchestra music director, is one of them. Even his secretary is a genius. I myself still have many things to learn.

Although I am far from being a perfectionist or a genius, I love classical music with all my heart. I would love to share the beauty with everyone, but many people still think that classical music is for the upper class. To discover how to narrow the gap between maintaining the genuineness of classical music while at the same time increasing its popularity is going to be my mission. I don’t think I will go for crossover, which means combining two different genres of music, in order to gain popularity though. To me, classical music is too sacred.”


You chose Rossini, Sibelius, Ravel and Stravinsky for the programme. You created a beautiful flow which made the audience long for the next piece. Especially the solo parts with the main theme were highlights. What is your philosophy for conducting?


“Every orchestra has its own traditions and moods. Each player has his or her own understanding and interpretation of music. It helps a lot when you have a good relationship with an orchestra. I think the kind of leadership we need today is not strictly top-down in order to make the orchestra do exactly what the conductor wants. Of course I have my own view but it has always resulted in better performances when I showed my respect by discussing the piece with the people I worked with. Being a conductor means taking every player into consideration, to try to bring out the best in them and to harmonize an orchestra as a whole in order to form one voice. What we need for this process are soft factors in leadership I would say.”

I got her philosophy confirmed after the concert by a cellist who worked with Sung after the concert. According to Erik Wahlgren (Cellist, Uppsala Chamber Orchestra), Sung is a musician and a conductor at the same time. A good conductor is not necessarily a musician and vice versa. Sung is not just a person performing the conducting function but someone who leads the orchestra by paying attention to each player in order to include them in the music making process.


What kind of conductor would you like to be?


“I want to play music which touches other people’s soul. I always wanted to perform in prison. I contacted a prison once through somebody I know but I got the answer that they already had a tight schedule. It was a shame that I could not get a chance to perform there but it was good to know that there were many other people trying to reach others through art and see music as a medium to make our society better. On top of that, I am trying to be strict for myself but generous to others.”


Is there any piece that you think everyone should listen to before they die?


“There are so many. However I would like to recommend the Symphony Number 2 by Gustav Mahler. This is the piece I want to perform for every human being as a conductor. Its message is also what I live for.”


Sung is like a lark on the stage. She moves as if she is flying above the notes. On the concert day, there were people who came to see her because they remembered her last concert one year ago. It is quite rare to see a performance of a female conductor even in a country as Sweden, which is referred to as the country with the highest degree of gender equality. However she deserves to be known for much more than for being a trailblazer by being a female Asian conductor. She is young, gifted and has a charming personality. Sung primarily deserves attention because of her talent as a conductor not for being one of the few women within that field.

Posted in: Gender, Music