Opening night at the San Diego Chamber Orchestra at St. Paul's Cathedral in Hillcrest, and from the outset a visitor notices things that are out of the ordinary. First, a welcoming committee of tuxedoed orchestra performers stands at the door in a rare display of accessibility. Later, the performers and their conductor Jung-Ho Pak walk onstage in unison; traditionally, a conductor makes his entrance separately. The orchestra does not tune up in front of the audience, and Pak does not use a baton ("too autocratic," he has said). Finally, the orchestra remains on their feet throughout the first half of the evening's performance.
"I asked the musicians to stand for two reasons," says Pak from his home in Monterey. "One is because that is historically what baroque musicians did. They stood in front of aristocracy...out of a sign of respect." And, he says that they play better. "That's why, when you go to a concerto, the soloist always stands up. Can you imagine how odd it would be if the clarinet soloist or a violin soloist played sitting down? That would be very odd. Can you imagine going to a rock concert and seeing the musicians sitting down?"
In January of this year, Pak was appointed artistic director of the San Diego Chamber Orchestra. He is concurrently serving in his eighth season as music director of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut and is the music director of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra at Interlochen in Michigan.
From 1997 through 2002, Pak conducted the San Diego Symphony, where he created idiosyncratic programs such as the Lightbulb Series. Aimed at thirtysomething listeners, the series is remembered for performances such as the one in which a French chef prepared food onstage while the orchestra performed.
"I brought all of my baby boomer, California-raised, television and movie and Internet-
influenced generation to bear on the Lightbulb Series, plus my shamefully eclectic taste in world music and pop music and jazz and rock and all these other things I grew up with [he later admits to being a huge fan of Karen Carpenter]. I'm an omnivore. I wasn't raised in a practice room."
Pak's speech is rapid-fire and intense. After a few minutes, it becomes clear that his mission is to eliminate the barrier between performer and audience.
"Doesn't that rob a performance of some of its mystique?" I ask.
"I think orchestras are trying desperately to remove that mystique. If you look across the country and see all the million-dollar deficits that face all the major orchestras...now everyone's trying to be hip. And I mean that in a pejorative sense. Because what they're trying to do is change the appearance of the product. And what we're trying to do is change the core of the product, the core of the experience. And that [core] is the musicians themselves."
Pak is pleased with the results so far. "We are succeeding beyond my expectations, actually, to change the mind of the musician to realize that their job is not to play notes. Their job," he says, "ultimately, is to grab souls."
Times are hard for classical music. Budgets are shrinking, interest is waning, and commissions for new scores are thin to nonexistent. "There's been a lot of sitting on our laurels, so to speak, over the past 30 years. Meanwhile, we're losing audience because the people come and they say, 'That's interesting, that's nice, but you know, it's not a place that I want to come back [to].' And that's the true test, really," says Pak. "The proof in the pudding is in how often that person wants to return."
"The thing that gets me up in the morning," he says, "is, 'What can I do to make great art...and what can I do to give it relevance today?' Am I brave enough to say the answer is nothing? As an industry, can we wake up and look ourselves in the mirror and say, 'This is not working'? Are we going the way of the harpsichord and the Gregorian chant and the Model T? Is it too much to expect that the way we've been doing things for the past 150 years...is going to always live forever? Or should we expect a natural life span for this art form?"
Pak travels with a Treo 650. "It is the yuppie hand-held computer. Phone, I can surf the web on it, I can answer e-mails, I can do everything -- and, with my expansion card, load on music. I tend to switch songs in and out quite a bit." He calls himself an inveterate downloader: "Napster, Rhapsody, and iTunes."
Jung-Ho's Top Ten Downloads:
1. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Ella and Louis
2. Frank Sinatra, Sinatra at the Sands with Count Basie & the Orchestra
3. Anner Bylsma, Bach Cello Suites Nos. 1-6
4. Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain
5. Chicago, Chicago Transit Authority
6. Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin, West Meets East
7. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's or the "White Album"
8. Igor Stravinsky, Rite of Spring
9. The Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood, Mozart Symphony No. 40
10. Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Herbert von Karajan, conductor, Also Sprach Zarathustra