Love Sung

After two superb appearances in 2022, Shiyeon Sung was offered a major role with the APO. We speak to the orchestra’s new Principal Guest Conductor.

If you look on YouTube, there’s a clip from 1948 of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting his beloved Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. They’re playing Brahms’ Symphony No.4 in London. The video is grainy, the sound is crackly, the performance is astonishing.

Shiyeon Sung watched that clip and decided on the spot that she wanted to be a conductor.

“The ability [Furtwängler] pulled out, and the energy and musicianship were incredible,” says the APO’s newly appointed Principal Guest Conductor. “I couldn’t move afterwards. I just decided I wanted to go this way.”

That wasn’t the original plan. Shiyeon had mapped out a life as a concert pianist. She was born in Busan, South Korea, in 1975, and began playing piano aged four, later attending a performing arts high school in Seoul.

“I had great lessons and the opportunity to learn the basics,” Shiyeon says. “It led me to consider leading a musical life.”

From high school she flew to Switzerland and the Zurich University of the Arts. It’s a good school – Anne-Sophie Mutter is a past pupil
– but Shiyeon only ever saw it as a stepping stone.

“Berlin University of the Arts was my childhood dream. All the great musicians studied or taught there, so I decided when I was 10 I’d go there. My dream came true.”

Shiyeon joined a list of alumni that includes Claudio Arrau, Kurt Weill, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Paul Hindemith and Arnold Schoenberg. Not bad company.

Sir Andrew Davis 2000x1300

Under the tutelage of the fine Hungarian musician László Simon, Shiyeon continued her piano lessons, but her head was turned by a fellow student.
“A friend of mine who was incredibly talented told me, why don’t you listen to orchestral music?”

Shiyeon was fortunate to have a decent band on her doorstep.

“I went to a rehearsal and a concert at the Berlin Philharmonic, at the time Claudio Abbado was Chief Conductor” she recalls. “It was amazing. I couldn’t forget the concert. But my friend said you need to listen to Mahler, you need to listen to Strauss. So I concentrated on listening to the masterpieces.”

And so it was that piano student Shiyeon Sung stumbled upon footage of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Brahms 4 and, against László Simon’s urging, became conducting student Shiyeon Sung.

The pivot soon paid dividends. In quick succession Shiyeon won the Georg Solti International Conductors’ Competition, and claimed second
prize in the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition, which in turn led to an invitation from the Boston Symphony to apply for the assistant conductor role.

“I didn’t study in the US, so I was a little bit afraid of what would happen; I had no contacts there,” Shiyeon says. “The audition was two rounds. The second round programmed Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra.”

This was new territory for Shiyeon, who’d been focusing on the Classical and Romantic standards. However, Boston’s Music Director, James Levine, was a huge fan of the Second Viennese School.

[Levine] asked the candidates, ‘Who doesn’t like Schoenberg?’ I raised my hand. The staff were like, ‘Oh, she’s failed’.” She hadn’t, and got the job working with one of the world’s great orchestras, a dream for a conductor at any stage of their career, let alone someone just starting out.

James Levine, as we have subsequently discovered, was a deeply problematic person. At the same time he was a fine conductor and an excellent orchestra trainer, in charge of a wonderful set of players. However, Shiyeon made her biggest discovery in Levine’s absence.

“I had a lot of opportunities because [Levine] got sick a lot. I’d get a call, ‘Shiyeon, can you conduct this evening?’”

She particularly remembers leading the BSO in Mozart’s Requiem and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms – pieces that saw her corralling choirs as well as the orchestra.

“When you jump in cold, with no rehearsal, in front of 2,000 people in the audience, 80 musicians and a chorus, you have to trust the musicians and trust that it’s going to be okay. That’s the most important thing I learnt.”

Sir Andrew Davis 2000x1300

Since then Shiyeon has conducted all over the world, including the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
(where Simon Rattle is about to become Chief Conductor) and, from 2014 to 2017, as Chief Conductor with the Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra, Korea.

And now she’s in Auckland. It was apparent early on that there was a connection with the APO’s players.

“Right away, the first rehearsal, after five minutes I felt: wow! There was real chemistry between me and the orchestra. I’m looking forward to working with [APO Music Director] Giordano Bellincampi, too. He has trained the orchestra to a high quality.”

Shiyeon and Giordano, along with Director of Artistic Planning Gale Mahood, have been talking music. In 2023 Shiyeon will again conduct here twice, with programmes including one of those you’d-be-mad-to-miss-it concerts featuring Hindemith’s magnificent Mathis der Maler symphony (City of Dreams, 20 April), a work, coincidentally, debuted by Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. Then, in August, there’s Shostakovich 5, with audience favourite Steven Osborne returning for Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G.

The French repertoire is one of Shiyeon’s specialties, and she says she’s keen to perform Berlioz and Dutilleux in Auckland. She wouldn’t be averse to introducing some Korean music, either, notably the work of Isang Yun and the superb Unsuk Chin.

“[Chin] is one of the great composers of our time,” agrees Shiyeon. “Her music is colourful and her orchestration is fabulous. The APO has a lot of variety of colour and expression and I think the audience would love it.”

The audience has clearly loved Shiyeon’s work in Auckland so far. The feeling is mutual.

“I’m very pleased to take this new role,” Shiyeon says. “After only two programmes I heard from [APO] management that they would like me to be Guest Principal. This appointment came like a present, a Christmas gift.”

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