Among the highlights of the extremely rich and diverse program of the 54th edition of the Sofia Music Weeks International Festival, held under the motto Unity in Diversity, there was the concert with works by contemporary South Korean composers Epic of Love and Farewell, held on June 27, 2023 in the Concert Hall of Prof. Pancho Vladigerov National Academy of Music. For the third consecutive year, the festival lens is aimed at the relatively little known, exotic Eastern culture. The musical and artistic exchange between Bulgaria and Korea is gradually enriched and upgraded with new ways of interaction between Bulgarian and Korean performers, with new works and increasingly attractive opportunities for their presentation. The fruitful cooperation takes place in different directions and already includes interesting combinations of Korean and Bulgarian folk instruments, traditional Korean dances and costumes, the participation of Bulgarian composers.
In 2021, the Korean Composer School was “in the focus” of Sofia Music Weeks, with works by several Korean composers entrusted to Bulgarian performers. In the next 53rd festival edition, Korean music was performed by Bulgarian and Korean singers and instrumentalists in beautiful traditional costumes. Various genres were presented, combining the knowledge of modern Western European music with national elements, for different combinations of musical instruments, and a lecture on traditional Korean music. This year’s program is a colourful kaleidoscope of works with roots in the Korean national epic. Even more interesting components have been added – traditional and contemporary Korean dance, new national Korean and Bulgarian instruments (senghwang and kaval), as well as two world premieres by Bulgarian authors.
The concert-show Epic of Love and Farewell was organized by the Sofia Music Weeks International Festival with the support of the National Culture Fund. The co-organizers were the East-West Music Society; the partnership of the Arts Council Korea, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Embassy of the Republic of Korea, as well as the Association of the Korean Community in Bulgaria is also important.
For the first time on the Bulgarian stage there were seven works from the last decade, written between 2011 and 2022 by leading contemporary Korean composers: Geonyong Lee, Yoon Kyung Park, Eunhye Kim, Boknam Lee, Seokgeun Gil, Wuiyeon Kim, as well as two world premieres by Georgi Arnaudov and Asen Avramov, commissioned by the Sofia Music Weeks Festival and created especially for this concert based on atypical timbre combinations between Korean and Bulgarian traditional wind instruments and percussions. They were presented by excellent Korean instrumentalists, singers, and dancers – professors and lecturers in various educational institutions (Sejong University, Myongji University, Dong-Eui University, Korean National Academy of Art), together with established and very young Bulgarian performers (lecturers at the Prof. Pancho Vladigerov National Academy of Music, New Bulgarian University, the Lyubomir Pipkov National Music School, the Prof. Asen Diamandiev Academy of Music, Dance and Fine Arts – Plovdiv, students and graduates, soloists of opera theatres).
The Korean traditional string and wind instruments: Korean zither – 12 string gayageum and its modern 25-string version, Korean flute daegeum, saenghwang, danso, piri, taepyeongso and various percussions, are of particular interest to our audience, and in this case for the first time Bulgarian composers have created their own opuses for some of them.
“In the Garden of Summer” (2011) by Geonyong Lee is a song about Korean zither gayageum, bringing together two summer experiences of the author, occurring in different continents. It was inspired by his Parisian impressions and poetry by Charles Baudelaire, but also by a trip to an 18th-century Korean royal villa in Myungokhon, whose setting reminds him of poems by Dugyeong Jeong of the Josеon Dynasty. With a lot of mastery and elegance, the emotion of the work was recreated by Jiyeon Lee – one of the leading participants in the concert event.
The song “Gashiri” (2020) about male voices, kaval and percussion from Yoon Kyung Park is dedicated to a love parting based on a text by an eponymous secular anonym from the genre “Goryeo Gayo” (“Goryeo Sogyo”) of the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392). The moving work, based on a collection of songs from the 7th to the 15th century, was presented with a lot of feeling by the Korean folk singer Dohyun Kim, together with the tenor Yuri Nikolov, the baritones Svilen Denchev and Georgi Dimitrov, accompanied by Vasil Vasilev and the young percussionist Charli Milov.
“Dog”, “Cow” and “Horse” by Eunhye Kim are from the cycle “The Twelve Zodiac Animals” (2022). The cello and piano pieces depict three of the 12 animals of the Eastern zodiac calendar corresponding to the birth year. The work is entirely built in the Western European musical tradition, without the participation of Korean national instruments. It has a programmatic character, original sound-imaging elements are used, expressing the most characteristic features of the animals – the faithful dog, the calm cow and the capricious, unbridled horse. The inspired and precise performance of cellist Teodora Atanasova and pianist Daniela Yaneva received well-deserved admiration.
Geonyong Lee suggested a very beautiful vocal lyric based on poems by Korean poets. The three miniatures – “Love” based on a text by Pastor Ik-hwan Moon for baritone and piano, “Night Walk” based on a poem by the poet Sungsun Lee and “Winter Love” based on a text by Jonghee Go for soprano and piano were created in 2020. They were beautifully recreated by Svilen Denchev and Elena Mehandzhiyska, accompanied by Daniela Yaneva.
“Hae-Eo-Hwa – Fugitive Love” (2020) by Wuiyeon Kim combines Bulgarian and Korean folk instruments – kaval and 25-string gayageum, with piano and percussion. The hae-eo-hwa flowers, which understand the words, also have figurative meanings – beauty or companion from ancient times (kisaeng).
The play depicts the loneliness and pain hidden behind the seemingly glamorous life of the kisaeng, as well as the longed-for but fleeting love. Performers Jiyeon Li, Charli Milov, Vasil Vasilev and Daniela Yaneva showed very good ensemble and high professionalism in recreating the dramatic feelings.
The plays presented with dance and traditional Korean costumes and props were particularly attractive.
“Jib-Jang-Ga” (2022) is an arrangement of Seokgeun Gil for piri, senghwang and janggu of one part – “Chunhanga”, from the Korean traditional mono performance “Pansori”. Its core is a beautiful love that ended with severe punishment and a lot of sadness expressed through song. According to the notes in the program, the author uses a variety of rhythmic modules from Gyeonggi province. The participation of dancers Yongsang Kwon, Ksenia Bakalova and Marina Haralambova was very exquisite, complementing the instrumental performance of Soyeop Kim, Seokgeun Gil, Eunhye Kim and Boknam Lee.
The Bulgarian audience was introduced to one of the versions of “Elegy” (2020) by Boknam Lee – for an original combination of 25 string gayageum and cello and with added dance specially for this concert. Music reveals deep feelings – pain and grief caused by a current modern topic – human tragedies as a result of terrorism, wars, and cataclysms. Teodora Atanasova and Jiyeon Lee were highly influential, as well as the choreography of Tatyana Sokolova, realized by the plastic artists Ksenia Bakalova and Marina Haralambova.
I leave the two Bulgarian works for the finale because they are a new, creative component in the Korean concert and must be especially distinguished.
The very short “Song” for danso and senghwang (2023) by Georgi Arnaudov is interesting in several aspects. The work presents for the first time on the Bulgarian stage the traditional Korean wind instrument senghwang. In combination with danso – more familiar in our country – the specific polyphonic instrument through a seemingly simple melody shows the Bulgarian folk rhythmics and metrics from a different angle, refracted through the prism of the sound of atypical timbres typical of the East. Its world premiere was made by Seokman Yoon, who had already visited Bulgaria, and Soyeop Kim.
“Branches Whisper in the Wind” (2023) by Asen Avramov – composer ‘in focus’ at this year’s Sofia Music Weeks, is a widely deployed work for daegeum and percussion, very appropriately supported by dance. It was created in the Eastern tradition and has a sound-imaging, contemplative character. According to the author’s description in the program, the combination between the timbres of the percussion instruments and the Korean flute depicts branches of a withered tree swaying in the wind. The hidden message in this beautiful picture, reminiscent of the circle of life like a sonic haiku, was successfully recreated by Seokman Yoon, Charli Milov and the dancer Yongsang Kwon in the first public presentation of the work.
The Bulgarian-Korean cooperation in the festival had other dimensions through events in a different format. On June 26, 2023 in Hall 48 of the Prof. Pancho Vladigerov National Academy of Music the lecture “A mixture of sounds, a mixture of cultures” was held by the guest from the Republic of Korea Prof. Geonyong Lee – an authoritative person in his country and abroad. A composer and a lecturer, founder of Seoul’s first music university and chairman of the Union of Korean Composers, director of the National Opera and member of the Arts Council of Korea Board, the lecturer drew on the importance of collaborations in art, religious and historical stages in Korean music, and contemporary forms of partnership in culture.
 Flying Over the Korean Night. Music by contemporary Korean composers performed by Negina Stoyanova – violin, Kristian Kaloyanov – clarinet, Teodora Atanasova – cello, Margarita Ilieva – piano and Alexander Lialios – piano (June 14, 2021).
 Incense and mask dancing. Works by contemporary South Korean composers Byeoungi Hwang, Wuiyeon Kim, Yoon Kyung Park, Suhye Kim, Gwanghi Kim, Boknam Lee performed by Seokgeun Gil, Yujong Lee, Haejong Lee, Yunje Ho, Seokman Yoon, Suhuang Jo, Sangyun Song, Negina Stoyanova
– violin, Maria Valchanova – viola, Anatoli Krastev – cello, Mirela Boycheva – piano, Miroslav Dimov and Charli Milov – percussion (June 14, 2022).
 Traditional Korean Music through the Contemporary Prism, Lecture by South Korean composer Yoon Kyung Park (June 13, 2022).