Empire State Youth Orchestra Shines in China and South Korea

In the spring of 2010, I got a call from one of my favorite people, Beth Antonio, Tour Coordinator of the Empire State Youth Orchestra in Albany, New York. Beth and I had worked on ESYO’s 2008 tour of Germany, the Czech Republic and Austria, and I was excited to help design its next tour. I expected her to say the orchestra had decided on Italy or, maybe, France. She really threw me for a loop when she said: “We’ve decided on China and South Korea; have you ever done an orchestra tour to South Korea?” The answer was a nervous, “Well, no!” That didn’t seem to be a problem. The group had been invited by the Korea Institute for Advanced Theological Studies (KIATS) to perform in conjunction with the 2012 World Expo in Yeosu, on the southern coast. Helen Cha-Pyo, the group’s artistic director, a Korean-born American, introduced the idea. The group and the board responded so enthusiastically that the wheels were put in motion and we started planning the tour: six nights in China, six nights in South Korea.



ESYO performed its first concert to a full house in the Beijing Concert Hall, a government-run venue. One of the challenges of performing a concert in a municipal hall is that the venue sometimes likes to have some suggestive input into the program. Four months before the tour, the hall requested something they’d seen on a past program from ESYO – the Butterfly Lover’s Violin Concerto. The piece is well loved by Chinese audiences, and the group happily complied. Serendipitously, ESYO’s concertmistress (and soloist on the piece) was Lisa Liu, a Chinese-born, Mandarin speaking senior in the orchestra. The reaction of the audience, which included many members of Lisa’s Beijing-based family, was overwhelming, and the group played three encores! 



After an equally successful concert in the world-famous Shanghai Oriental Art Center, the group traveled to Korea. KIATS, the group’s host in Yeosu, had set up a number of performances, varying in formality. The first was in the Yeosu Expo Concert Hall. I’d been to the hall a few months earlier, when it was a construction site inaccessible without a hard hat. I wondered quietly if there was any possibility that the hall would be finished by the time the group arrived, but was assured that Koreans can pull off the impossible. Well, I ate my (hard) hat. The hall was unbelievable! The structure is subterranean, terraced into a hillside that descends into the sea. It is covered by a glass roof meant to symbolize a waterfall, as water was the theme of the 2012 Expo. 



The concert began, and this time it was Helen Cha-Pyo’s turn to embrace her roots. Addressing the audience in perfect Korean, Ms. Cha-Pyo captivated them easily and the orchestra took her lead without pause. Not a seat was empty as the orchestra played its first of five concerts in Korea.



Two days later, ESYO participated in one of the most unusual performances ever on an ACFEA tour. Part of KIATS’ work focuses on advocacy and outreach for sufferers of Hansen’s disease, more universally known as leprosy. Near Yeosu is Sorok Island, a place originally used to quarantine people with the disease. There are currently only about 600 people living on the island, but they remain, as Sorok is a safe haven for them and the only home they know. ESYO had the privilege of performing a full concert for the patients and residents of the island, an emotional and fulfilling experience for everyone.



Soon, it was time for Seoul, where the group would perform its two final concerts, the last of which was a special highlight, as the group was invited to play at the Yongsan Garrison, one of the largest United States Army bases outside the USA. The performance was, for lack of better words, really, really cool! It was attended by a four-star General, who gave the closing remarks, along with several other uniformed military, who all stood ceremoniously when the group played its encore: “The Army Goes Rolling Along”. It was the perfect end to an incredibly rewarding tour.