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Two orchestras hit sour note vying for official 'national' recognition

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The Korean Symphony Orchestra (KSO) / Courtesy of the KSO
The Korean Symphony Orchestra (KSO) / Courtesy of the KSO

KSO seeks to be national orchestra, while KBS believes it deserves that status

By Park Ji-won

One of Korea's two leading symphony orchestras has set off a cacophony of sorts after attempting recently to be named as a "national orchestra."

That status, granted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, would guarantee the Korean Symphony Orchestra (KSO) access to more state funding and other perks, not to mention added prestige.

But KBS Symphony Orchestra, the other leading philharmonic, is trying everything to mute KSO's bid.

The KBS orchestra tried to block the KSO from officially using the word, "national," fearing that its own status could be negatively affected if the rival orchestra gets the nod from the authorities to become the only national organization.

The KBS-KSO dispute erupted after the KSO and the culture ministry began openly seeking the public's opinion about changing the name from "KSO" to the "National Orchestra" or the "National Symphony Orchestra." The conflict recently came to a head as the KBS orchestra is trying to secure its survival, because its contract with public broadcaster KBS will terminate in 2025.

KBS Symphony Orchestra and its labor union have released separate statements to discredit the KSO, arguing that they are the authentic candidate to become the national performing arts organization.

In a statement released on Friday, the KBS orchestra questioned if the KSO is fully qualified to represent Korea.

"It is said that a controversy erupted lately in the Korean classical music scene, as a certain orchestra has sought to use the word 'national' in its name," it said, referring to the KSO as "a certain orchestra."

"If a certain entity wants to have the 'national' title, it must first check whether it deserves such a title, as the 'national' term holds a lot of gravity and prestige. There also should be an open discussion about this, too," it added.

KBS Symphony Orchestra's official statement was followed by its union's press release.

In a direct and straightforward tone, the union asked if the KSO is qualified to officially have the word "national" in its title.

"We'd like to ask what kinds of activities the KSO has done so far which are on a par with those that are performed by national institutions … We urge them to consult with the KBS Symphony Orchestra about how to proceed in regards to the creation of a genuine national orchestra that can represent Korea's classical music, rather than going it alone," the union said in a statement, Wednesday.

Stressing that KBS Symphony Orchestra has been performing and representing the country and that, indeed, it is the genuine successor of the state-run National Symphony Orchestra, which existed between 1969 and 1981, the KBS union said, "The KSO has been mainly playing background music for performing arts organizations."

This sharp-tongued criticism coming from the KBS orchestra and its union, along with their belittling of the KSO, seem to reflect the KBS orchestra's strong pride and somewhat bruised ego about the notion that they, in fact, are the true "national orchestra."

Founded as "KBS Symphony Orchestra" in 1956, its name has changed several times. From 1969 to 1981, the orchestra was once called the "National Symphony Orchestra," under the National Theater of Korea. After a reshuffle, it was renamed "KBS Philharmonic Orchestra" in 1981, before its next name change to "KBS Symphony Orchestra" in 1990. KBS Symphony Orchestra has been receiving about 10.8 billion in funding from KBS, as well as raising their own money every year, since 2012.

KBS Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jaap van Zweden, center, at the Seoul Arts Center, Oct. 29 / Courtesy of KBS Symphony Orchestra
KBS Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jaap van Zweden, center, at the Seoul Arts Center, Oct. 29 / Courtesy of KBS Symphony Orchestra

Meanwhile, the KSO, which is funded by the culture ministry, argues that it does have the credentials to become the national orchestra.

"We have been playing the role of fulfilling national interests by performing for ballet and opera troupes about 100 times annually, as well as holding concerts, some of which are done upon the request of the ministry," an official of the KSO said, on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The KSO official said 70 percent of the orchestra's budget comes from state funding, just like other national performing arts groups, such as the Korean National Ballet and the Korea National Opera. In 2021, for example, the KSO received 5.7 billion won ($4.8 million) from the ministry, which accounts for some 74.8 percent of its total annual budget.

The KSO was founded in 1985 by conductor Hong Yeon-taek and some performers who had worked for the National Symphony Orchestra. It signed a contract with the National Theater of Korea, which at that time housed national performing arts organizations such as the Korea National Opera and the Korean National Ballet, to play music for these organizations' performances, beginning in 1987.

Those who are familiar with the KBS-KSO dispute say that the backlash from the KBS orchestra comes from its members' fears of the possible fallout affecting their own prestige and status in the event that the KSO earns the national title.

"By adding the word 'national' to its name, the KSO will potentially win the rights to perform for major government events, not to mention prestige as the nation's representative performing arts organization. It may have consequences for KBS Symphony Orchestra, which has, up until now, been performing exclusively for some state-related events, and the latter may lose such chances in the future ― in other words, such sources of income," an official who was involved in the nationalization of other performing arts organizations in the past said.

But the official questioned KBS orchestra's view.

"It is strange for KBS Symphony Orchestra to claim that only it has the right to succeed the legacy of the National Symphony Orchestra," the official said.

The problem is that there are no specific, written guidelines to name a certain institution a national organization, meaning that the backlash from the KBS orchestra may be justified.

Meanwhile, the ministry has said that it will push for the renaming to expand the KSO's role as the nation's official organization.

An official at the culture ministry said, "It is still at a very early stage in the debate (regarding the issue of determining which orchestra is the national performing arts organization) and the ministry is considering renaming the KSO a state-funded, national organization affiliated with the ministry to avoid any misunderstanding about it being a private organization."

The ministry official added that, with the word "national" in its title, the KSO may be able to get more funding from the government, and will be asked to serve the public more, so as to contribute to the development of other orchestras around the country.

"What matters the most in determining the national performing arts organization is how well the organization does for citizens who pay taxes, not who started first. I think the right to become the national organization will be evaluated by the public in the end," said the official with experience in the nationalization of other performing arts organizations.

Park Ji-won

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