Monday, May 17, 2010

The Choir

The day after the French Comedy I found myself at the Geumjeong Cultural Center ('금정문화회관') in Busan - I believe that around half the districts in the city have their own cultural centre - for a performance by the Busan Metropolitan City Chorus.

Unlike the French Comedy, which had cost 22,500 won per ticket (about £13/$20), tickets to see the Busan Chorus were a mere 1,000 won (59 pence/88 cents) - a special promotion as part of the event's proximity to Children's Day on May 5th and Parents' Day on May 8th. This meant that the tickets only cost us 10 won more than the price of the forty-five minute subway journey to get there.

When I write about the costs of cultural events in Korea I usually add the equivalent British Pounds and US Dollar amounts to provide some context. However, an additional factor is that the average salary in South Korea is lower - according to the IMF in 2009 the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) of the US in dollar terms was approximately $46,000, the UK was $35,000 and South Korea was $28,000. Furthermore, there is a large diversity of incomes in Korea, with Korea's income gap by gender being the largest in the OECD, many people earning less than the minimum wage - not just the young in my experience - and over 3 million Korean households being classed as living in poverty. In other words, attending cultural events may well be largely in the domain of the better off, which is why cultural initiatives priced to be more inclusive is, in principle, such a good idea.

Unfortunately, the price didn't translate into audience numbers in practice - vast areas of seats were empty by the time the performance was scheduled to begin. It crossed my mind that the 1,000 won pricing may have actually devalued the experience. My wife had been a little under the weather due to her pregnancy, and even we had paused to reconsider our attendance beforehand, which had the tickets been more expensive we likely wouldn't have.

So when fifty choir members walked out onto the stage, it was sadly entirely possible that they outnumbered the audience, meaning that unlike the previous day at the French Comedy, if they decided to rush us we were in trouble. I felt rather sorry for them, but if conductor Kim Kangkyu ('김강규') was discouraged he didn't show it as he proceeded to talk the audience through the various pieces with the enthusiasm and smile of a true believer. It was quite infectious.

And the Busan Metropolitan City Chorus seemed equally determined. I have to admit, the 1,000 won pricing had not served to build up any high expectations in my mind, and it wasn't what I expected in a half-empty district cultural centre a little off the beaten track. As they launched into a beautiful rendition of Caro mio ben I thought "Who are these people, and what are they doing here?"

The Chorus was not merely going to limit itself to some arias though, as it broke out of the opera genre and into a rousing and surprising rendition of the Scottish classic Loch Lomand. I thought I detected a couple of 'lubs' rather than 'loves' in there, but generally it sounded for all the world as though they were singing in a Scottish accent. If I'd closed my eyes I could have almost imagine the aftermath of an English rugby defeat. To provide some balance, England's Down by the Salley Gardens was also part of the brief choral tour of the Disunited Kingdom.

The varied repertoire next took us through Germany's Morgen! and Von ewiger Liebe, before returning to more familiar Italian territory with Tosti's La Serenata, and L'Ultima Canzone. The performances were good and I felt more than a little guilty afterwards that we'd considered not attending, because it would have been unfortunate to have missed it.

I was sorry for the choir in that they probably outnumbered the audience, but I learned later that they'd recorded a CD and appeared at more mainstream venues many times, so the day's rather limited audience was probably nothing more than an aberration.


Curtis said...

Although I haven't read your entire collection of posts, it seems that many of the cultural events you've attended in Korea have been subject to disinterest or animosity by the Korean audience. Despite your explanation of the poverty issue, would you say that cultural events such as the concerts you've attended are largely met with a lack of enthusiasm by Koreans?

Mike said...

Hello Curtis,

I think this is a difficult question with no simple answer. The Choral performance wasn't well attended but those who were there clearly enjoyed it as I did. The previous day's 'Comedy!' performance was probably a little too avant-garde for Busan, which doesn't really have the more experienced theatre culture of Seoul. The concert with Jeon Jeduk and Malo, and the Nanta performance I attended were big hits, as was an orchestral performance a couple of weeks ago which I'd got tickets for with friends but then couldn't attend because of my work. Cultural events run by local government always seem well attended but people do have a habit of rushing off before the end sometimes.

It's occurred to me, from my limited experience, that Busan audiences are much more receptive towards Korean cultural performances rather than non-Korean ones. I've wondered if at some point in the future I might look back on these times and see that the city was going through a slow process of cultural awakening, where people were not only learning to live with non-Korean products, but also non-Korean culture. I get the impression from the questions which are often asked at the end of performances such as 'Comedy' and Nola Rae's 'Exit Napoleon' that people are often experiencing something they are not familiar with and are searching for answers - trying to think outside out of their cultural expectations to understand what they have seen, and sometimes it's a struggle. It doesn't mean to say they come away disappointed, although sometimes I'm sure they have, but I have the vaguest sense that Busan is slowly undergoing a quite important cultural change. I might be wrong, I sit in the middle of all this as a often isolated outsider, separated by a language barrier, so I'm not in a position to have strong opinions about such nuances. It's just a feeling.

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