By Heather Longley
Fans call Seong-Jin Cho’s playing style “miraculously fluid” and “heaven.” One Japanese follower says his performances reignited her love affair with piano music. Who is this piano prodigy from Seoul with swooning fans worldwide?
Cho captured the hearts of his countrymen when he debuted his talents for local audiences at age 11. Three years later he won the Sixth Moscow International F. Chopin Competition for Young Pianists. But he garnered worldwide attention as the youngest pianist to win Japan’s Hamamatsu International Piano Competition (2009) and as the first South Korean to take first place at Poland’s International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition (2015).
He will be the featured soloist for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, with Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra October 28 at Eisenhower Auditorium. The concert, conducted by music and artistic director Jacek Kaspszyk, is also scheduled to include Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Polish Melodies Op. 47, No. 2, and Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68.
Cho, a reserved and serious musician mature beyond his 22 years, answered a few questions for the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State. His responses show a humble and disciplined pianist committed to fully understanding the composers he interprets.
Heather Longley: You’ve already won a number of prestigious piano competitions, yet you’re still studying under famed French pianist Michel Béroff. What is your goal as a musician?
Seong-Jin Cho: My goal as a musician is to become a great artist, playing memorable concerts for audiences around the world.
Longley: I understand that you have a rabid fan base in South Korea. In addition to a number of fan sites, your debut solo album—featuring highlights from the Chopin contest and released last year on Deutsche Grammophon—went platinum six times a little over a month after its release. That number beats Grammy Award-winning South Korean soprano Sumi Jo’s record and, according to SlippedDisc.com, makes your release the top-selling classic in South Korea for a decade. At this point, do you think people in South Korea liken you to a classical-music rock star?
Cho: I’m really grateful for the overwhelming support I’ve received from the people of Korea. I’ve never thought of myself as a classical-music rock star, so I don't really think they treat me like a rock star.
Longley: I read that you returned to Seoul in February and performed to great fanfare. The writer at Culture.pl says, “The performance is a huge event, as it has been a long time since his last performance in his home country. The occasion is without a doubt also a huge one for Koreans.” Can you describe that experience and returning home as the Chopin competition winner?
Cho: It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. The public was very enthusiastic, and it turned out to be a huge and successful event. It was a special and memorable night for me.
Longley: You are quoted as saying you wanted to participate but waited years to enter the Chopin contest. What was it that made you feel prepared to perform for that contest?
Cho: In 2010, I wasn’t allowed to take part in the Chopin competition because of the age requirements; I was 16 years old and too young. In all honesty, I’m not really a fan of competitions because they always yield a great amount of stress on me. However, a prestigious competition like the Chopin awards its winner with many performance opportunities, so that’s what ultimately influenced my decision to participate (at the next competition in 2015).
Longley: How does trying to understand the mind of a composer help you with performing his or her works?
Cho: Understanding the mind of a composer would help me understand the historical and personal context behind each and every one of his works, which ultimately provides me with the tools to perform his works with more depth and meaning.
Longley: You have stated that you don’t like rock and pop music. What kind of advice could you give or what could you say to young people who find it a challenge to understand and appreciate classical music?
Cho: I think the path to understanding classical music is a lifetime journey. I’m only 22 years old, so I still consider myself as a beginner. So it’s difficult to give advice to young people.
Heather Longley is a communications specialist at the Center for the Performing Arts.