Jung-Ho Pak returns to conduct the Lehigh Philharmonic on April 20 and 21.
When Jung-Ho Pak first came to Lehigh in 1987, he was fresh out of the University of Southern California, eager to take on the responsibilities of conducting the university’s wind ensemble and jazz band.
With his return this week to guest conduct the Lehigh University Philharmonic Orchestra performance of “The French Connection,” the maestro rides in on a wave of professional accolades.
He was described as a conductor who “radiates enthusiasm” by The New York Times
and “one of the most impactful people to watch” in the music world by the San Diego Union-Tribune
. He’s been hailed as a visionary and influential leader who transformed the world of classical music and ushered in a new era of artistic excellence and community investment.
Now serving in his final year as music director for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra—and recently inaugurated in the same role for the San Diego Chamber Orchestra—Pak’s meteoric rise in the world of classical music has been attributed not only to undeniable talent, but to his infectious sense of enthusiasm and joy for his work.
It’s a quality that he thinks is lacking in the genre. And he believes it holds the key to the resurgence of a field that is struggling to remain relevant, beset by a host of woes: waning interest, aging audiences, and infinite diversions that compete for the attention of the public.
“If you look at symphony orchestras, opera and ballet companies, the writing is on the wall,” says Pak, whose lightning quick responses to questions tend to come laced with whimsical analogies. “People are much more interested in having 200-plus channels, or having Netflix delivered to their door, or arguing about American Idol
. And where does that leave us?”
Competing with James Bond
Pak believes classical music must be more accessible.
From Pak’s perspective, the only viable option is making classical music accessible to all, and convincing even those with no musical background or education of the benefit of enrichment.
“Otherwise,” he says, “you’re just slapping makeup and a wig on a pig, and calling it a model. You have to engage people. You have to show them how much fun and beauty and joy there is in the music. You have to take that chance, and feel that emotion and savor that emotion, and you will make a difference to someone.”
He’s done exactly that in San Diego, where he wooed new audiences to the city’s Symphony Orchestra with performances that blended music and with “fireside chats” with renowned authors and musicians. Throughout his career, he’s also employed multimedia technology and theatrical staging for performances, and engaged young attendees and their parents in events such as an “instrument petting zoo.”
In the process, he not only saved the San Diego orchestra from bankruptcy, but raised more than $120 million in the process—the largest endowment gift in international orchestra history.
Such success, he says, more than convinced even the skeptics of the wisdom of his approach.
“Art fails for many reasons,” he says. “You have donors who want things to stay the way they remembered from the 1950s. You have board members who want to preserve or pickle it. You have artists and conductors who have been sold a bill of goods, who have been promised that they would have a job for life if they just performed the way they always did and kept their nose clean.
“But just like IBM, or any other company that had to adapt, we have to look at it like a business model, and serve our customers, not us,” he adds. “We need to stop hiding behind the skirts of Mozart and Beethoven, and start competing with the latest James Bond film, or new restaurant, or whatever it is that is capturing their attention that particular moment.”
The approach percolated in his mind as he saw acts such as Cirque de Soleil and Blue Man Group performing in Las Vegas, where, he noted, no less than four Guggenheim Museums rose up out of the desert.
“I saw the trend,” he says. “My dream was to get to really large audiences through broader media, like television. I was challenged by making classical music accessible to anyone, no matter what their background. I always tell performers that they have to play as if everyone matters.”
Any other approach, he says, leads to the slippery slope: “Who else doesn’t matter?” he asks.
Pak’s grand-scale vision came to fruition when he served as principal conductor for the Disney Young Music Symphony Orchestra for eight years. Broadcast on the Disney Channel, Pak reached more than 30 million young viewers worldwide and earned the program an Emmy nomination.
Paul Salerni, chair and professor of music at Lehigh and a longtime friend and collaborator of Pak’s, sees affirmation of Pak’s approach in the response of the Lehigh students who have worked with him on the upcoming performance.
“He is the best person in training an orchestra that I’ve ever seen,” Salerni says. “I’ve worked with him at Interlochen (Summer Arts Festival) and saw how good he is with the students. He has such passion and enthusiasm, and he makes each and every one of them recognize that they are all crucial to the music. Most conductors don’t take the time.”
As Pak gears up for his new assignment with San Diego’s Chamber Orchestra and his return to the prestigious Interlochen this summer, he’s also relishing the prospect of working with Branford Marsalis on a new project that will combine classical and jazz music.
“Optimism is very much the operative word, and that is the real key, no matter what you do,” he says. “In the end, enthusiasm is worth its weight in gold. You can learn that there is a certain kind of ease and joy about being enthusiastic, if you decide you want that for yourself.
“It’s such a great way to live, isn’t it?”
Guest conductor Jung-Ho Pak will lead the Lehigh University Philharmonic during a performance of “The French Connection,” which will include works inspired by the collaboration between composers with a French connection (Stravinsky, Debussy, Haydn and Ravel) to Paris' Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev. The performance will feature the 10th Annual Lehigh University Concerto Competition winners Emily Orenstein’10 and Justin Sirrine ’10.
Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, in Zoellner Arts Center’s Baker Hall. For tickets and more information, please call (610) 758-2787 (7LU-ARTS) or visit the Zoellner Web site.