Orchestra takes in sights, sounds and culture of Korea THE BSO'S ASIA TOUR

October 25, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Seoul, South Korea -- Dodging motorcyclists with a predilection for sidewalks and motorists who don't think twice about backing up cars at full speed, the musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra rarely had to be reminded yesterday -- their first day in this huge, energetic city -- that they were in a culture different from any most of them had encountered before.

They had been too exhausted Sunday from a grueling 23-hour trip to experience culture shock. And tonight, when they give the first concert of a month-long Asian tour -- at the Seoul Art Center -- they will be on familiar ground in the music of Barlioz, Mendelssohn and Brahms. But yesterday, bargaining for leather goods in Seoul's famous open-air markets and trying to order meals in restaurants where no one spoke English, was another matter.

Last night, for example, six intrepid musicians set out from their hotel in search of an authentic Korean meal. Within moments they confronted the vertiginous neon lights of Seoul's narrow streets. They saw restaurants with fish tanks in which swam octopi and eels, and with window displays of such unfamiliar items as sugared silkworms. No wonder some in the group suggested going to a restaurant accustomed to dealing with tourists. But BSO principal hornist David Bakkegard wouldn't hear of it. Hardened as they are to dealing with one of the most recalcitrant of instruments, horn players tend to be fearless.

"We don't want to eat what we might recognize," Bakkegard joked, as he shepherded the reluctant group into a little restaurant. The players took off their shoes, sat cross-legged on the floor and watched their food barbecued on coals in front of them.

It was a delicious meal in which the beef-like main course may not have been beef. Dog is a Korean delicacy, and on the rare occasions when one encounters man's best friend in the city of 11 million, he tends to be a puppy, he is tied up, and he looks terrified.

In Seoul, however, one never steps into what dogs leave behind. This is an immaculate city in which ashtrays -- most Koreans smoke -- are found on every street corner.

Bargains are also to be found on Seoul's streets. And many BSO musicians spent most of yesterday shopping in the famed It'aewon market and the less celebrated Nandaemon market. It'aewon, where English is spoken and all the merchants accept credit cards, is the market tourists visit to find for $250 the leather jacket they saw in Nordstroms for $650. Nandaemon, where scarcely anyone speaks English and only cash is accepted, is the place Koreans search to find that same jacket for $150 -- or less.

This is a society in which people bargain for bargains. At least one BSO shopper learned this the hard way. He bought a pair of jade earrings at a merchant's asking price for $120, only to learn later that a friend had purchased -- after bargaining for a few minutes -- the same earrings for half that price. But for most of the players, bargaining brought more than cheaper prices: It also meant learning about another people.

"Bargaining has such a narrowly defined objective," said BSO violinist Rebecca Nichols. "The surprise of having to do it teaches you that your expectations aren't necessarily the same as some one else's."

Soldiers on the street

Some things about Korean culture were a little intimidating. One was the presence of Korean soldiers on the street. Another was American soldiers walking to and from their jobs in battle fatigues.

"It's our regular uniform here," said U.S. Army Captain James Lincoln, explaining that the uneasy truce between South and North Korea made it necessary for every solder, South Korean or American, to be on 24-hour alert.

But most BSO musicians liked what they found in Seoul, a level of trust and freedom from fear among its polite and hard-working citizens. Even the occasional beggar was neatly dressed and unobtrusive in his behavior. Equally impressive was the kindness most Koreans seemed willing to extend to strangers who were lost.

Some things, of course, were familiar -- and it wasn't just signs for Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King and 7-Eleven. Building is taking place everywhere in this fast-expanding city. As one group of BSO players, which included two attractive young women, set out for Nandaemon market yesterday, appreciative chattering could be heard high above them on a construction site.

Even in Seoul, it seems, construction workers will be construction workers.

Although the BSO does not actually perform until tonight, it has already made an unfortunate impression upon its first audience. That audience consisted of the crew of Northwest Flight #11, which took the orchestra from Detroit to Tokyo on Saturday.

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