In this interview, conductor Chung Park shares his path to becoming an orchestral conductor. Chung talks about the importance of having enormous respect for his orchestra players, and how he has balanced the importance for musical excellence and administrative savvy early in his career. He discusses his influences, his inspiration, and what drives him. In an age where conductors are being called upon for more than just musical direction, Chung represents the next generation of conductors who see and embrace the many responsibilities of their profession.
Why did you decide to become a conductor?
I became a conductor because I’ve always felt that I had something unique to offer. Even when I was in my teens I felt I could convey things that were extra-musical, things that got beyond black dots on a page and at the heart of the music. I always feel that there will be people out there who are better musicians than I am in myriad ways, so I have long since given up on living up to the old ideal of the conductor as superhuman musician. It is belief in the uniqueness and value of my musical ideas and my ability to convey these ideas effectively, not the fact that I am a better musician in any absolute sense, that gives me the fortitude to get up in front of what is invariably a well trained and highly intelligent group of musicians and lead them.
I am a strong believer in aggregate intelligence, or what writers like Malcolm Gladwell or James Surowiecki call the “Wisdom of Crowds.”Even an orchestra comprised mostly of amateurs, like the group I conduct here in Pocatello, Idaho, is full of tremendously intelligent people. They may not know musical jargon or conventions as well as a group of professionals in Rochester or San Francisco, but I’ve always found that putting this many intelligent people in a room together creates a collective wisdom that is greater than the sum of their parts. This wisdom demands respect, and it’s amazing to work in a field where one should appeal to people’s intelligence to get the best results. It is an honest and forthright way to go about life. There are very few paths we can follow where we can truly be principled about what we do and share these principles with others.It’s a privilege very few people enjoy.
Who have been some of the most important influences on your life as a musician?
I’ve been lucky enough during the course of my education and career to be trained by demanding and caring instructors and mentors. Three people, however, stand out. My high school orchestra teacher, John Cina, was a man of tremendous talent and ability. He could reduce El Salon Mexico from the full score at the piano and play every instrument in the orchestra with a decent degree of competence. It was in high school orchestra that I first heard Strauss waltzes, Mozart Symphonies and heard about musicians named Reiner, Szell, Dutoit and Blomstedt, conductors who remain among my favorites to this day.He was a throwback to a different era, and I was very fortunate to have had this link to the past teaching me daily how to become a better musician.
Through a series of lucky coincidences, I was able to study viola for a semester with Hatto Beyerle, who was the violist for the Alban Berg Quartet from its inception until the early 80’s. It was from him that I learned to use my body properly on the violin and viola and gave me the pedagogical tools I use daily in my position here as Professor of Upper Strings at Idaho State. He was a tremendously sensitive and insightful teacher and a man of endless patience. I endeavor always to follow the example he set as a teacher, performer and human being.
Finally, Thomas Sleeper, my teacher, mentor and friend at the University of Miami prepared me for life as a professional conductor. His intellect was formidable, and he made me realize just how much deeper into the score I could and should go. He also encouraged me to face all of my fears head-on and to learn to trust in myself and my ability. My thinking is that any conductor who tells you he or she hasn’t had, or continues to have, an internal dialogue about whether or not they are up to the task is either lying or a sociopath. Thom taught me how to turn this fear into positive energy and use it to look deeper into the music and the craft of conducting.
As a conductor, what are the most important skills that you use on a daily basis?
The skills I use daily are a motley aggregation of things I’ve picked up during 15 years of conducting. Some are mundane, like being able to read bass clef fluently on the violin (extremely helpful for working with younger musicians) and some are a bit more rarified, such as talking with donors and community leaders as an advocate for my organization. The one thing I can’t stress enough to other conductors who are entering the field either in education or professionally (I have one foot on both sides) is to practice being a good administrator. In the year or so I have been in Pocatello, my orchestra has doubled in size and our season ticket sales have increased by 25% year over year. Sure, some of this is the result of good ideas for enhancing the patron experience and I hope the music making has been excellent, but the fact is that all of these good intentions are for naught if the execution is not there. There are strong parallels between what good conductors do and what good CEO’s do. The great ones are great not only because of their ability to think creatively but because they are able to execute and bring those ideas to fruition.
How important do you think it is for emerging conductors and musicians to have an entrepreneurial approach?
I think it’s absolutely imperative for conductors to possess entrepreneurial skills. Arts organizations are constantly fighting budget constraints and tight resources. Conductors who are able to bring imaginative, executable ideas for audience building and community outreach to the table will be in even greater demand as we go forward. Very few ensembles will have the luxury of having the artist savant as music director as budgets get tighter and funding more difficult to obtain. Orchestras of the 21st century will need leadership that is attuned to these difficulties and music directors willing to step to the fore to ensure the continued success of their ensembles.
What advice would you offer to young conductors and musicians about to embark on professional careers?
I don’t have any specific advice for younger conductors. I can only relate to you what drives me personally. The first thing I strive for on a daily basis is to hold myself to the highest levels of musical integrity. The music deserves this, and the musicians who you work with deserve it. In conversations I have with colleagues who are in major orchestras, the one thing that is most frustrating is when someone who doesn’t have the musical skills to get into their orchestra as a player is up in front of it conducting them. This may sound so simple as to appear trite, but be an excellent musician first and worry about the conducting later. Secondly, I repeat what I said about being a good administrator. Nothing erodes an orchestra’s morale faster than poor administrative performance. Finally, cast a wide net in search of wisdom. At the root of it, we are in a people business, and it is important for us to be curious about what makes us tick. I especially find the writing of behavioral economists like Stephen Levitt and observers of human behavior like Malcolm Gladwell interesting. My view is that the actual act of being in front of an orchestra is essentially an exercise in human relations. The frightening thing is that this happens in real time and in a very public venue. This can sometimes be frustrating, sometimes exhilarating, but it’s always a fascinating and inspiring way to spend a life. There is nothing better for me than to have a colleague whom I respect tell me that he or she felt a moment of magic during our music making. It is a moment of absolute clarity and utter bliss when these things happen, and musicians are just about the only group of people I know who get to strive for these ineffable moments for a living.
I close with a plea rather than advice. No matter what, keep your sense of wonder about you and remember why you got into this business in the first place. Not for self-aggrandizement, not to become rich or famous, but because the music is beautiful and we want to share what we love. Best of luck to all of you who have chosen to follow our path.