Two and a half years ago, the 23 year old Korean Seong-Jin Cho won the prestigious Chopin competition in Warsaw and launched himself onto the world stage. He was also awarded a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. In fact his Chopin winning performance was recorded and has sold about 150,000 copies worldwide.
It’s been a wild ride. He’s been put in touch with the famous and compared to the legends of the keyboard.
These days he plays 100 concerts a year around the world. That’s about 200 in all. One of the places he has not played much is Canada. Last year he was in Vancouver and on Tuesday he’s in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre.
To say, his journey has been a bit of a whirlwind would be an understatement.
“In the beginning, it was quite difficult. Before the Chopin competition I only played about 20 concerts a year.”
Maintaining focus then has been an important skill for Cho to master. But like many young men his age, he keeps it pretty down low.
“The only the thing I do,” he says, “is sleep well and eat well.” Anyone who likes Korean barbecue might be surprised, though, to learn that his favoured food is actually Italian.
“I like fine dining also, but usually I prefer casual meals, simple pasta or pizza.”
All the touring he does, he says, is limiting his time to prepare new repertoire and, he says, he often finds himself rehearsing new works in dressing rooms on the road. It has him thinking about slowing down. But not yet … maybe in a year or so.
“I have to slow down to have more free time, my time.” Just not yet.
After all he was battle-tested in the cut-throat competition world and his performance there has drawn attention, and respect, from around the world. The American pianist Garrick Ohlsson, who won the Chopin medal in 1970 told the Washington Post that “Cho was remarkable” in Warsaw. “He was such a complete young artist.”
This kind of praise is hard to live up to, but Cho is giving it the old college try.
In Ottawa, his program has two sonatas by Beethoven (the Pathetique and the E major sonata) Debussy Images (Book 2) and Chopin’s Sonata No. 3.
He can’t it seems get away from Chopin, not that he really wants to.
“When I play a recital, everyone wants to hear Chopin. I need to learn more Chopin, for example, I haven’t played the Polonaise Fantasy or other major important works.
“And the Chopin Sonata No. 3 is actually a new piece for me.”
Chopin, Cho believes, is a very important composer for pianists because “90 per cent of music is for the instrument. He didn’t like to be called a Romantic composer but he is.
“His music is absolutely not easy to play. He is very complex I think. His music, at the same time, has a very clear structure. It’s also very nostalgic feeling and dramatic and there is a lot of colour inside the music.”
Beethoven’s E major sonata is one of his favourites by Beethoven.
“It is a late piece. I’m playing these two sonatas to show some contrast.”
Beethoven wrote the Pathetique in his late 20s and he wrote the E major in his early 50s.
“These are two totally different pieces of music, they almost seem to be composed by different people. In the E major his imagination was really limitless. In the earlier sonata, he was influenced by Haydn. It’s very classical but at the same I can still feel the young spirit inside the music.”
As for Debussy: “His muisc is really poetic. It’s always good to play Debussy and Chopin together.”
He has recently released a double CD of Debussy’s Images on Deutsche Grammophon, proving, if there was doubt, that he is more than a Chopin man.
Cho was born in Seoul.
“My parents are not musicians but my mother used to play the piano when she was a child as a hobby. We had a small upright piano in our house. My parents loved classical music. We had CDs and listened to classical music.”
The story goes that Cho was encouraged to play by his parents so the only child wouldn’t be lonely. By 10 he was studying seriously and by 12 he had given his first recital. In 2011, at 17, he finished third at the Tchaikovsky competition at 17. He finished third at the Rubinstein in 2014.
Today, he says, “classical music feels really natural for me.”
He’s certainly not listening to K-Pop on his smart phone.
“My parents told me that when I was little I really didn’t like noisy music. I mostly listen to classical. I have some favourite bands including the British band Quint. I listen to that kind of music sometimes.” But it’s not his first choice.
Neither is piano music.
“I like to listen to symphony music. There is some music that the piano cannot do like Mahler or Bruckner or Wagner. I also like to listen to opera. I want to experience music that the piano cannot do.”
Listening to a symphony helps, he says, his piano work. Listening to a symphony helps to interpret some composers like Beethoven or Brahms.”
In the world of music, Berlin has become a destination for young players. The pianist Alice Sara Ott lives there. And so does Cho. He was at home when we talked.
“I visited Berlin two years ago and I liked the city … except the weather. There are many musicians here and I felt that something was happening. Classical music is really hot here. There are a lot of orchestras here. I like the young artistic spirit of the place.
“You can also live well here. I was in Paris before and Berlin is half the price.”
His parents still live in Seoul, although they do spend time with him in Berlin.
But because of his career, he’s not really following the news about the two big world events that are occuring there, the Winter Olympics in Pyongchang and the tension with North Korea.
“I’m reading articles in the newspapers, so I am following a little bit. I know about sports but I’m not really following it. I’m also not really a political person.
He does perform in Asia a lot and one thing he does know about his home country, where he is a virtual pop star.
“In Korea people are very enthusiastic and passionate classical. I play everywhere in Asia — China, Japan and Hong Kong — but I have found that the audience is typically much younger in Korea.”