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Seoul Audiences: or, How to Buy Seats for a Classical Music Concert in Seoul, and What I’ve Seen of Late

Over the last couple of months, I’ve seen an unusual number of orchestra concerts, and mostly they’ve been quite good. I’ll get to all that in a bit, but I want to generalize a little about concertgoing in Korea first.

The programs here tend to be even more conservative than what I was used to in Saskatoon, Sasktchewan, the last time I was attending classical music concerts regularly. In Saskatoon, you would often see a contemporary composition open a concert — often enough that I had something to really look forward to most of the time. But in Korea, it’s very often dead white guys all the way through — very often long dead white guys. You rarely even see Bartók or Webern or Stravinsky, let alone Michael Torke or Toru Takemitsu. This is frustrating for someone like me, who likes to hear music that’s freshly sliced off using the bleeding edge, even if it is only the first ten minutes of the concert.

Another issue is the audiences. It’s quite funny: when you go to a punk rock show in Seoul, or an indie-rock show, the audiences are somehow oddly “too uptight” — or at least they used to be when I was playing or attending shows. Very little dancing, a lot of just sitting and listening. (Though at some places there was more dancing, like some nights at DGBD.) Well, at classical concerts, you might find the opposite: a lot of audience members are good, but just enough of them are not-quite-uptight enough to maintain proper concert etiquette. Depending on the price of the concert, you’ll encounter people who either are totally into it, silent, on-the-ball, or else you’ll be surrounded by annoying ajummas chattering to one another about their cell phones — which, horrors!, are still on during the concert — or by bored guys who are flipping loudly through the concert booklet because they’d rather be at home watching TV but their girlfriends made them come. (I encountered both of these — two ajummas comparing cell phones during Prokofiev, and a fidgety, loud-page-flipping guy — at the concert I attended tonight, despite how good the performances actually were.)

No, I am not exaggerating. It’s rare I attend a concert where some blasted cell phone doesn’t go off at some point, even though they post a screen with instructions to turn off phones during the concert every damned time. (I wish they’d just buy cell-phone frequency blockers and be done with it.) The issue, I think, is that for a lot of people, it’s not so much the music as the eliteness of being at a symphony concert that holds the atttraction. Actually sitting still for two hours and listening to abstract music, well, that’s not something most people are used to doing. So you have chatters. And fidgeters. And loudly-page-flipping program booklet readers. And people inconsiderately fiddling with their phones or holding conversations during the performance, until you tap them on the arm and shush them. Which is what you have to do, because they often don’t take a hint from just a dirty look.

The best indicator that you’re around people like that — people who are likely to ruin the concert for you — is that they’re dressed to the nines, that is, in their absolute Sunday best. The people who dress up that much for a symphony concert often have other things in their mind than the music itself… sad, but very true, even in a Korean audience, where people dress more formally as a rule and where mode of dress is so much more of a signifier of everything than in the West.

(It’s still a big signifier in the West, but it’s not quite so slavishly followed as here. The level to which people follow it here would elicit a response among many Westerners of, “Just what are you trying to prove, man?” The Korean response I found funniest was from a co-worker, who said, “Koreans just know how to dress, and tend to dress better than most Westerners.” Uh, okay. For a certain, er, Korean definition of better, I suppose.)

But, on the positive side, you also have very enthusiastic audiences.

Okay, sure, they also happen to clap extra-loud for any soloist of Korean blood, even when they’ve obviously flubbed the performance. (Especially if it’s a Korean performer who is famous abroad. Man, they love those people. There’s a famous pianist here, Kim Sun-Wook, who apparently finds this frustrating — the ease with which he garners standing ovations, even on an off night. It’s gotten so that he’ll have to move to someplace where he’s relatively unknown, just to keep the level of challenge high enough for himself.)

But one thing about Korean audiences is that they show their appreciation. They clap their hands raw after every piece. (And, some people, sometimes, even do it between movements, unfortunately.) People aren’t shy to stand, even alone, to give someone a standing ovation, even if their friends don’t stand with them. (Quite an unusual thing in Korean society, this going out on a limb alone, especially in a praiseful way. I have to wonder if it’s an extension of the older etiquette governing performances: at pansori shows I’ve seen, people yell out encouragement to the performer pretty much when they feel like it, individually. Inhibition is much lower for this sort of thing than, for example, dancing alone or with a partner at a rock show.)

If you’re buying tickets for a concert, the best thing to do is go online. You may need help from a Korean if you can’t read the language yourself. The big venues are the Seoul Arts Center and the Sejong Center. In the Seoul Arts Center, you generally have two options: you can get seats on the 1st floor, if the orchestra’s not too famous or if you don’t mind paying a lot. You might still encounter idiocy there — Lime once saw Korea’s most famous fashion designer sitting in (or was it near?) the front row; during a piano concerto, I think it was, he fell asleep in his white space-suit outfit. He forced his troupe to stand for an ovation at the end of the piece that he, big old philistine that he is, slept through.

(Yes, I’ll admit what I’m thinking: “Bloody tourists.”)

You also have a great deal of people in the first floor who will try to impress their girlfriends in various ways, like saying, “Excuse me,” in English as they stomp on your toes to get past you, or who will comment to one another about how you’re dressed, thinking you can’t understand. For a lot of people, going to the symphony is a formal occasion, moreso even in Korea than in North America. I, of course, mutter about bloody tourism when I see this, too, but it’s a fact of life, I suppose.

The other option at the Seoul Arts Center is that you can get choir seats. These are up beside or behind the orchestra, so if there’s a soloist besides a pianist, you’ll have a terrible view. But the sound is okay, and from the sides you have a great view of the orchestra and conductor, plus — and this is the best part — the majority of the people who sit there are really into music, as in, they’re musicians themselves, so none of the shenanigans and tomfoolery except at the cheapest of shows. I have seen a few people who fell asleep or had phones on up in the choir seats, mind, but there’s a much lower concentration of effing tourists, and a much higher concentration of people. And the biggest signal of this is dress: you see people in casual dress, with instrument cases, people who know the pieces being played, absently practicing the fingering for this or that piece during intermissions, people who are there to listen. My previous reticence to frequent the choir seats is gone, and now I think I prefer them to any other seat. At least, the choir seats off stage left.

(And yeah, I still kind of find it weird how many people bring their violins to the concerts. I have a sneaking suspicion that some people do it just as a kind of musical street-cred move, a fashion statement of sorts. But you see tons of violins and cellos. Kind of like how you see so many of your friends who’re subscribed to fiction mags are writers themselves, I guess.)

When you book tickets, you can choose your seats. Choose aisle seats if you can — this gives you a better chance of moving if one or more “tourists” end up beside you. The closer you are to the stage, often, the better. Sometimes the 3rd balcony is a better place for sound than up close, though. (If you don’t mind the people being little dots on the stage, it’s good.) Buying a membership card at the Seoul Arts Center gets you discounts, and it’s worth it if you plan to go to a lot of concerts.

As for the Sejong Center, the best option in my opinion is a high-up balcony. That’s where I’ve had the fewest problems, and the sound is fine. You can buy tickets for that concert online, to, but show up early: the ticketing staff is less efficient than at the Seoul Arts Center, and you may be in line longer. (Also, they’ll insist you get into

Okay, as for the concerts I’ve seen, I’ll put them after the fold. Some people might be interested in what I’ve seen, and my reactions to performers or composers, but most won’t be, so there’s no sense in cluttering the site with all that. Click if you want to know all about it.

Let’s see:

I also have seen three shows as part of the 2008 Orchestra Festival. They’ve featured orchestras from around the country, and been much better than I expected, in general, as well as quite affordable.

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