The Korea Herald


Who can lay claim to title of ‘national orchestra?’

Conflict over Korean Symphony Orchestra’s name change grows as KBS Symphony Orchestra opposes move

By Park Ga-young

Published : Jan. 12, 2022 - 18:10

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Culture Minister Hwang Hee (right) poses with Choi Jung-sook, the newly appointed head of the Korean Symphony Orchestra, Tuesday. (MCST) Culture Minister Hwang Hee (right) poses with Choi Jung-sook, the newly appointed head of the Korean Symphony Orchestra, Tuesday. (MCST)

As the Korean Symphony Orchestra, which is often mistaken as a private orchestra, is set to change its name to include “national,” the KBS Symphony Orchestra, which was once the National Symphony Orchestra, stands in opposition to the move, which was decided without consultation with them.

After making the decision to change its name last year, the Korean Symphony Orchestra is considering several options for its new name, including simply “National Orchestra,” and will make a final decision during a board meeting next month, according to an official at the Korea Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday. “But we will never use ‘National Symphony Orchestra’ as our new name,” the official told The Korea Herald, adding, “The name change had been considered for a long time but to no avail. But this time, we are thinking about the change to reflect our role and to correct the misconception that we’re a private orchestra.”

An official at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism told The Korea Herald, “Giving the title of national to KSO is not a big deal, considering that 75 percent of its budget relies on the ministry and its existing roles.”

“Despite being an organization supported by a national budget, its national and overseas activities have been limited due to the misconception about its identity,” the official said.

The move came out of the blue for the KBS Symphony Orchestra, which claims that a consultation with them is overdue. The KBS Symphony Orchestra at the last minute canceled a press conference scheduled for Wednesday, saying it was still finalizing its position.

In a statement issued late Wednesday, the orchestra said that appropriate skills that match the name of “national” and a public debate should come first.

“Just because their brand is not well-known, that doesn’t justify the name change. In addition, the KBS Symphony Orchestra is doing what a national orchestra does, such as joint concerts of South Korean and North Korean symphony orchestras (in 2000) and even a New Year’s concert for the Culture Ministry this year,” an official from the orchestra told The Korea Herald on Wednesday.

The official, however, made it clear that the opposition to the change does not stem from the KBS Symphony Orchestra’s desire to be a “national orchestra.”

The KBS Symphony Orchestra was established as an orchestra attached to the state-owned Korean Broadcasting System in 1956. It was transferred to the Culture Ministry and was renamed the National Symphony Orchestra in 1969. It returned to KBS in 1981, once again taking on the name KBS Symphony Orchestra. That move coincided with the departure of executive conductor Hong Yeon-taek, who went on to found the Korean Symphony Orchestra in 1985.

In 1987, the Korean Symphony Orchestra was designated as the in-house orchestra for the National Theater and began performing with the Korea National Ballet and Korea National Opera. Together with the two national art groups, the orchestra took residence at the Seoul Arts Center in 2000, as part of the Culture Ministry’s push to vitalize the cultural complex in southern Seoul. In 2010, it became a foundation under the Culture Ministry, which provides more than 70 percent of the orchestra’s annual budget. Its head is appointed by the culture minister.

On Tuesday, Culture Minister Hwang Hee named mezzo-soprano Choi Jung-sook as the new head of the Korean Symphony Orchestra. The appointment came less than three months after David Reiland took office as the orchestra’s artistic director.

However, Choi’s appointment has invited controversy, as the new head has no previous experience in managing an orchestra.