Seong-Jin Cho (Photo credit: Harald Hoffmann)
Korean wunderkind pianist ready to dazzle in San Jose
By Elijah Ho
The Mercury News
May 23, 2018
In a conversation seven years ago with the Italian pianist, Alessio Bax, winner of the 2000 Leeds competition, I asked if, in all his travels adjudicating competitions and conducting masterclasses, he had ever encountered a phenomenal talent, a freak of nature, yet somebody the music world was yet unaware of.
“There was one case,” Bax replied, “this little boy at the Hamamatsu Academy, who from the moment he walked on stage — I tell you, any 40-year-old would have been happy with that performance. There was not a trace of immaturity. It was incredible.”
The wunderkind was Seong-Jin Cho, who, true to Bax’s praise, was six years later crowned winner of the International Fryderyk Chopin Competition in Warsaw. On May 28 at San Jose’s California Theater, the Steinway Society presents the pianist from Seoul, on the occasion of his 24th birthday, in a recital of works by Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin and Debussy.
What distinguishes Cho from other musical prodigies is the devastating combination of mechanical mastery and breathtaking, original musical insight — artistic excellence he acquired in spite of a late start.
“There were no musicians in the family,” Cho told me over the phone from Berlin. “I started playing piano at 6, but not seriously, and only began lessons with a piano professor at 10 years old.”
But he made up for lost time.
“By 14, he was already the total package,” Bax told me earlier this month. “He was technically perfect, had a gorgeous sound, naturally flowing lines, showed amazing poise and control as a pianist — very rare for someone of 14. They’re the same characteristics he shows today.”
‘Perfection’ comes up time and again when colleagues describe Cho. Dang Thai Son, jury member of the 2015 Chopin competition that Cho won, has been privy to Cho’s gifts for a decade.
“Seong-Jin played for me in Busan when he was 14 years old,” recalls Dang. “What a discovery it was: fresh, stylish, full of perfection. He told me he wanted to participate in the 2010 Chopin but was too young to enter. I was pretty sure he could have won a high prize, even then.”
“Because I started rather late, I didn’t have much repertoire,” Cho admits. “I worked hard the year of the Hamamatsu, and my musical ability progressed a lot. My technique is not bad — it’s not exceptional like (György) Cziffra’s — it’s just good enough to express my ideas.”
“Just good enough”, that is, to tear through Chopin’s arduous First Etude in C major, Op. 10, which, he says, “isn’t very difficult for some reason.”
While South Korea has produced its share of competition laureates, it’s never seen anything quite like this. Cho’s debut album reached the summit of album sales in Korea, dislodging K-pop releases, achieving platinum status four times within days of its release. The allure of being the first countryman to win one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world is not lost on him.
“I actually get nervous when I’m in Korea,” Cho admits. “There is so much support, the sold-out audience is very enthusiastic, but there’s a kind of expectation there. I feel the responsibility to work harder, to be on a similar level as other artists who’ve won the Chopin.”
Dang, the first of Asian descent to win the Chopin in 1980, knows all about that pressure.
“Seong-Jin’s performance at the competition was absolutely inspiring — a summit of sorts. But he is humble, a sign of his intelligence. My wish is that with his incomparable artistic values, he will get there, and I believe it will happen.”
While winning the Chopin affords opportunities and prestige, inviting comparisons with highest artistic standards, Cho believes his work has, in fact, just begun.
“The pianists of my generation — Trifonov, Grosvenor, Levit and Rana — are very serious musicians. We all play differently, and I respect that. Perhaps we can arouse curiosity in the art form, attract new, greater audiences. I believe there is reason for hope in classical music.”
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