In the middle of April Korea’s brainy youth prepare themselves for a gruesome week long examination period. Middle school and High school students study endlessly for two weeks in preparation for their midterms. Sleep is but a distant pleasure and these young scholars gulp down coffee milk and munch on shrimp crackers at every hour of the day and night.
Through all of their suffering there is a silver lining, a light at the end of the tunnel. Parents of middle school students take their children out of their extra curricular Hogwan’s so they can focus on their studies. Which means I get a lot of time off. I was elated to see that my schedule for the next two and a half weeks had been cut in half. My salary would remain the same, I would work four days a week for three hours a day. I was in heaven.
For the majority of these “holidays” I enjoyed coming home early to read in solitary. It was on one of these evenings when I was reading MFK Fisher’s, With Bold Knife and Fork that I sat up from my bed and ran to my computer. I had been listening to The Verve’s, Bittersweet Symphony and the repetitive violin and cello had me in a rather elated mood.
Korean’s love classical music. While on the subway you can always hear a light pitter patter of Beethoven or Mozart as the next stop is announced. Many of my students spend several hours a week in private piano, violin or saxophone lessons. Korea places their successful musicians on pedestals and considers them national heroes. It all makes sense to me now as I have gained the understanding that the national psyche is focused on raising a cultured, mature, well disciplined populace with a strong arts background steeped in Western tradition. If Korean students can hone their musical talents with as much zeal as they can for the math and sciences they are certain to produce some of the world’s most revered classical musicians.
I ran to school several hours early and burst through the front door frightening the secretary who sat reading her fashion magazine. She always smiles at me in a very odd, questionable way as if thinking, “what on earth does he want now.” Out of breath I panted, “can you please purchase me a ticket for the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra?” She got on the computer and in a flash I was staring at the Seoul Art Center Music Hall seating plan. There were two seats left for the Wednesday performance and she booked me an astonishingly cheap $10 ticket on the 3rd balcony.
I had nothing to do on Wednesday as it was my day off so I headed for the subway in the early afternoon and walked through the heart of Seoul’s art district. On my short walk to The Seoul Art Center complex I walked past a handful of café’s, wine bars, and upper crust restaurants. The main street which ends at the huge Seoul Opera House is lined with many independent music shops selling sheet music, cello cases and violin horse hair bows. One instantly gets the sense that they are surrounded by cultural sophisticates.
The Seoul Art Center complex consists of many grandiose buildings which celebrate various art forms. The complex began construction in 1984 and opened its doors in 1993. It was created in order to bring Korean arts to an internationally competitive level by opening up the cultural scene in one central location. It consists of the main Festival Hall, Calligraphy Museum, Music Hall, Arts Center, Center of Archives, Education Hall and a spectacular Traditional Korean Garden, Circular Plaza, Outdoor Theater and marketplace.
The architecture of each of the buildings is purposefully symbolic: the central venue, which is the Opera House, was built based on the design of the traditional hat for Korean men, the gat, worn during the Joseon Dynasty and the Music Hall was designed to resemble an antique Korean fan.
I walked up a massive staircase and found myself directly in front of the Opera House overlooking the city. I decided to enjoy the early afternoon sunshine by walking through the grounds. I stared at several rather obscure bronze statues in the sculpture garden and took a few pictures of pink, white and purple azaleas which are presently in full bloom along the central plaza.
I walked down another staircase lined on either signed by lush green trees which made the slow decent seem like I was walking through natures tunnel. At the bottom of the steps I quickly found the Hangaram Design Art Museum. Along the central plaza there were several large billboards which read, “The Jewels of Tiffany 1837-2007.”
A Korean woman who studied in NYC called over to me as she saw me staring at the exhibit brochure. She explained to me that for the first time in history the world renowned Tiffany Jewelers had sent out an exclusive collection of their most treasured designs. Seoul is the first and only city to host the collection. I’m not a huge diamond, gold and pearl lover but thought it would be a shame to miss out on such a unique opportunity. I paid for my ticket and sat with her friends as they lounged outside sipping on Starbuck’s and chatting about their favorite pieces. These four evidently wealthy women in their early 30’s reminded me of a Korean version of the Sex and the City gals. Several of them actually had written down the names of some of the necklaces and rings in hopes that their husbands would contemplate making an “investment,” on their behalf I reminded them that the exhibit was just that, an exhibition, not a store and they would not be selling any of the items at the museum.
I bid the ladies farewell and first walked to the museums permanent collection which featured a plethora of modern home appliances, furniture and comfortable living nick nacks. After eyeing a few ridiculously expensive shelving units I gawked at a love seat which featured two doughnut holes in the center of each cushion. Modern Art is fabulous but often makes no practical sense. The couch looked as though it were actually a fancy two seater toilet. I was temped to purchase an adorable set of salt and pepper shakers. One was black and the other was white, they were designed to look like nuns running with their arms outstretched for a hug. When the two are brought together in embrace they fit perfectly like puzzle pieces. This overpriced IKEA experience reminded me that I don’t actually have an apartment worth investing in, just yet. I bit my lower lip and scooted out of the show room.
The Tiffany exhibit spot lights the 170 year history of this famed New York shop. The exhibit naturally started at the stores beginnings, a Fancy Goods store founded by Charles Lewis Tiffany in 1837. The exhibit is organized into ten large show rooms which pass through various artistic stages. It was rather fascinating to walk from room to room, literally passing through time and seeing how the advent of WWI affected the various precious stones and fashionable designs of each period. Glass cases full of glitter sat illuminated in the dark as I flew through Temple of Fancy, Art Deco, Opulent Accessories, The New York Worlds Fair and finally ending at the magnificent Tiffany Diamond.
I love wandering through art galleries. My favorite thing to do is to hide in a corner and watch people as they inspect the various show pieces. I’d say at least 95% of the crowds at this exhibit were middle aged woman or young couples. I assume most of the boyfriends had lumps in their throats as their girlfriends clapped their hands and stared in awe at the various million dollar accessories. The exhibit also featured a screening room where the famous scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s was shown on a repetitive loop. The hallways in between each gallery featured large black and white photos of many famous celebrities and socialites who have worn Tiffany jewels over the yeasr. Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Cindy Crawford and several European royals.
Two pieces stand out to me as being unforgettable. For the 1889 Paris Exposition, G. Paulding Farnham designed several orchid brooch’s made of porcelain and studded with diamonds. Also, in 2006 the architect Frank Gehry know for his Guggenheim Museum in Biblao made news with the introduction of his first jewelry collection. I think there is something special about wearing a Gehry chunky silver bracelet. One must always feel as though they are wearing a piece of scaffolding.
Finally the Tiffany Diamond. A 128.54 carat fancy yellow diamond with an unprecedented 80 facets from the rough crystal of 287.42 carats. It is a world famous piece representing the reputation and history of Tiffany. The Tiffany Diamond is also called, The Bird on a Rock Brooch. A small white diamond studded bird stands on top of the massive yellow Tiffany Diamond. This infamous diamond had garnered quite the crowd. I had to peer over a few shoulders to get a look at it. A short Korean woman held a flashlight to the diamond and each time she swiped the light across the brooch the entire room would set out in various sighs of satisfaction.
I soon found myself sitting on a leather backed bar stool overlooking the dining room of Mozart Café. This uppity café is located directly across from the Music Hall and absorbs the diner traffic from the pre theater Opera and Symphony. I arrived just in time so it seems. As I breezed through the menu I could see a long line snake itself out the front door past the main windows across the garden. I ordered a cold draft Lefe Weizen and held the mug in both of my hands as I smiled with glee. I alternated sips between a plate of nachos and asian inspired salsa. The Lefe brightened my mood immensely as I had not tasted a well crafted beer in ages. Korean beer tastes like a watered down version of Coors Light (which many would argue is already watered down). I spent the good part of an hour slowly eating a plate of tempura chicken and chips while staring out at the symphony crowd.
I walked into the Seoul Arts Center Music Hall and stared at the many couples and families that stood clutching their tickets. The click clack of high heels across the marble floors could be heard ever so faintly. Everyone was well put together. Many of the older ladies wore wacky Japanese and Korean fashions, everything an earth tone. I was a bit confused about when we were supposed to seat ourselves so I walked up the first flight of stairs and found myself standing in one of the box seats. I felt a bit naughty when I realized that the Music Hall was vacant (and realized that the red velvet rope that I crossed to get up here probably wasn’t an invitation to enter). The Hall seats 2600 people and features three sprawling balconies.
The pre-show gong went off so I rushed out of the box seat and feigned idiocy as two ticketing ladies stared at me in disbelief as I rushed back to the lobby. I finally climbed three flights of stairs and took my seat in the center of the third balcony. I felt as though I was standing directly over the stage. The seating is organized in such a way that you feel as though you may crash into the resting cello’s bellow.
The lights lowered, the room roared with applause and the floor bellow filled with musicians dressed in black and white. I sat with my legs crossed staring down at the conductor as he thrashed his hands two and fro. I actually enjoyed sitting way up in the rafters as I was able to see the performance from an interesting perspective. The ceiling of the room was rather fantastic. Wood carved in such as way so that when you stare up above it looks as though a set of ocean waves are you going crash upon you.
The latter half of the show featured a sinewy Korean violinist wearing an indigo blue dress. It was almost as if she was attacking her instrument. Plucking it to death as she swayed back and forth. The music she played gave me the impression that she may be going through a nasty divorce. Angry, confused, wild and exciting. As she attacked her last set of strings she gave a great sigh, bowed and immediately the crowd cheered uproariously. Minutes later I was in shock as she came out onto the stage several times, eight in total, for standing ovations.
I rushed out of the Music Hall at 10:30pm and burst through the main doors. The surrounding buildings were now covered in darkness but illuminated themselves from within. Through the main plaza I could hear the sweet sound of the Opera playing over the loudspeakers in the garden. I was ever so excited when I came across The World Music Fountain which is situated between the Opera House and Music Hall, and is the biggest fountain in the country. The fountain dances to the music with the help of some incredible light work. I felt like I was in Vegas! I sat beside a hedge and stared out across the glowing fountain as the water danced across the night sky.
There is something about Tiffany, Lefe, the Symphony and dancing water fountains which really can’t be properly described in one word. Simply: delightful.