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Music as the glue for diplomatic cohesion

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Won Hyung-joon, executive director of the Lindenbaum Music Festival, became the third South Korean last month to speak at the Oxford Union, the debating society at Oxford University, following former Samsung Electronics semiconductor guru Hwang Chang-gyu and "Gangnam Style'' rapper Psy. In his recent appearance at the forum, Hwang shared his ideas of using music and culture as diplomatic tools to improve the turbulent relationship between South and North Korea. This is an edited version of his speech. ― ED.

<span>Won Hyung-joon speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times. <br />                    / Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul</span><br /><br />
Won Hyung-joon speaks during a recent interview with The Korea Times.
/ Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul
By Won Hyung-joon

Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank Oxford Union for this invitation, especially your president Maria Rioumine, treasurer Parit Wacharasindhu, and Choi Yeong-hyeon.

I am a musician and music is my language. So I am grateful for the chance to stand in front of you and talk about how music teaches you to be more considerate and allow you to communicate better.

What I want to share with you today is my journey as a person and musician and the decisions I made along the way. I want to share with you how I got to found the Lindenbaum Music Festival and what I learned from the experience, and explain my commitment on bringing together young musicians from South and North Korea during the festival.

Family ties

Like many South Koreans, I grew up knowing that I had relatives in the North. During ceremonial rites to honor our ancestors on Lunar New Year's Day and Chuseok (the Korean equivalent to Thanksgiving), I always noticed an extra setting and didn't know who it was for. My grandfather told me it was for his mother. My grandfather came from North Korea during the Korean War. His mother stayed behind. They never met again. But my grandfather never forgot her and kept a pair of her slippers in his drawer.

My mother's side of the family is also from North Korea. And it turned out that my wife's family was from North Korea as well. So I found myself surrounded by separated families and the divide between the South and North was an issue that always felt real and immediate for me. So the passion that is driving me to what I do now has personal roots.

As a youngster, I had the opportunity to go to New York and study violin at Julliard. The experience wasn't easy because my financial situation wasn't exactly in a good state. I struggled to pay tuition and I thought seriously about quitting. But my mentor, David Kim, the concert master at the Philadelphia Orchestra, told me I had a gift and that I shouldn't give up, no matter what. He encouraged me to stay strong and pursue my music. I would not be here today if it wasn't for him.

He also told me about the Pacific Music Festival in Japan. So I went to Sapporo in 2008, and was able to hear about Leonard Bernstein's concept for the PMF. Bernstein always had a passion for teaching young musicians and helping them achieve their dreams. That's why at the age of 71, he founded the PMF in 1990.

In the opening ceremony for the PMF, Bernstein said, "I now must make the choice again of how best to serve music, and serve people through it. Whatever I know not only about music, but also about the arts and not only about art, but also about the relation between art and life and about being oneself, finding one's self, "knowing who you are" and doing the best possible job. If I can communicate some of this to as many young people as possible in the years that remain to me, I will be a very happy man." Bernstein died later that year. But the PMF is still going strong.

Bernstein's words turned a light bulb on in my head. I wanted to do something similar to what Bernstein did with PMF. I wanted to help other young musicians pursue their dreams, just like Bernstein and my mentor. It felt like this was my destiny.

Founding the Lindenbaum Orchestra

In 2009, I started the Lindenbaum Orchestra. It would not have happened without the support of many people. My mentor Kim introduced me to the renowned maestro Charles Dutoit. Dutoit is a busy man ― the principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic is just one of his responsibilities. But he came on board because he shared my vision for helping young musicians realize their dream. Dutoit and 13 other great international musicians somehow managed to adjust their schedules to work with 100 young Korean musicians.

It was an amazing experience, learning from some of the world's best musicians. I saw what it takes to bring an orchestra together. Everyone had their own instrument and their own styles and sounds. It can at first sound terrible. But, over time, they came together through teamwork, humility and consideration. Each player listened to each other so that everyone could be in tune. And they learned to make beautiful music.

The final concert was a huge success, beyond my wildest expectations. And afterwards, the mentors and young musicians had watery eyes in the end, overcome with emotion at what they just achieved. So that moment opened my eyes to how music can overcome differences in personalities, styles, and backgrounds. Music really is the language that brings people together. I saw that when people really listen to each other and try to understand the other people's point of view, the result is beautiful harmony.

After the success of the first festival, I was trying to think of what more the Lindenbaum Music Festival could do. I thought about what made the festival so unique, and I realized that it's the location - Korea. For a divided country, one orchestra can have a special meaning. It may not bring peace, but it may bring hope. All the connections fell into place. The sadness of being separated from family in the North, the mentors I had who inspired me to go for my dreams, and what I experienced about the power of music to bring people together in understanding.

Orchestra of peace

So now I have an even greater dream. I want to see young musicians from South and North Korea come together and share the experience of playing in one orchestra; 50 students from the South and 50 from the North. They will work side by side and receive training from the best musicians. They will need to listen to each other and practice consideration. They will create harmony and I hope that it will inspire more communication. I am grateful that so many people are helping me. We share the same dream. For my part, all I can do is play my best. Thank you for this chance to share my story with you. Thank you.


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