A mu­sic com­pe­ti­tion to end all com­pe­ti­tions

Win­ning the Chopin gold medal in 2015 meant that South Korean pi­anist Seong-Jin Cho could put such tense tri­als be­hind him

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSEUMS - BY SI­MON CHIN CLAS­SI­CAL MU­SIC style@wash­post.com

Noth­ing cap­tures the am­biva­lence many mu­si­cians feel to­ward pi­ano com­pe­ti­tions — those high­stakes Olympics of the mu­si­cal world — bet­ter than the re­ac­tion of the rising South Korean star SeongJin Cho, to win­ning the leg­endary In­ter­na­tional Chopin Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion in 2015.

“I was re­ally happy, be­cause I wouldn’t have to play in any more com­pe­ti­tions,” Cho recalls.

Cho, then 21, had en­dured three nerve-rack­ing weeks of com­pe­ti­tion in War­saw. He won over the 17-mem­ber jury with his rare com­bi­na­tion of tech­ni­cal bravura, artis­tic ma­tu­rity and fresh­ness of in­sight across the range of Chopin’s pi­ano writ­ing.

“Cho was re­mark­able,” said Gar­rick Ohls­son, the 1970 Chopin com­pe­ti­tion gold medal­ist who served on the 2015 jury, speak­ing by tele­phone from North Carolina last month. “He was such a com­plete young artist.”

With his gold medal, Cho knew his im­me­di­ate fu­ture was set — or as set as any young clas­si­cal mu­si­cian’s can be. He was pro­pelled to overnight celebrity in his home coun­try, and he se­cured ma­jor con­cert dates and a record­ing con­tract with Deutsche Gram­mophon. He could leave be­hind the pres­sure­filled, cir­cus­like and of­ten po­lit­i­cal world of pi­ano com­pe­ti­tions.

The pres­tige of the Chopin com­pe­ti­tion will pre­cede Cho, now 23, ev­ery­where he goes in the com­ing years. In a tele­phone in­ter­view from Ber­lin, where he was record­ing a new De­bussy al­bum last month, Cho spoke prag­mat­i­cally about why a ma­jor com­pe­ti­tion win helped his ca­reer.

His vic­tory opened the doors to Carnegie Hall, where Cho made a sold-out recital de­but in Fe­bru­ary. It surely brought him his Wash­ing­ton-area de­but July 28 at Wolf Trap, where he will be per­form­ing Beethoven’s “Em­peror” Con­certo with the Na­tional Sym­phony Or­ches­tra. But it is also car­ries with it some bag­gage.

De­spite an il­lus­tri­ous list of past win­ners, the Chopin com­pe­ti­tion, like all ma­jor com­pe­ti­tions, has a mixed track record of pre­dict­ing suc­cess and longevity. Its record is, in fact, bet­ter than most. But for ev­ery leg­endary Chopin win­ner such as Mau­r­izio Pollini (1960) or Martha Arg­erich (1965), there is also a mostly for­got­ten name, such as Dang Thai Son (1980) or Stanislav Bunin (1985). Not since 1975, when Krys­tian Zimer­man be­came the first Pol­ish gold medal­ist, has the win­ner of the Chopin com­pe­ti­tion gone on to last­ing in­ter­na­tional star­dom.

The re­al­ity is that, with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of mu­si­cal com­pe­ti­tions world­wide, there are far more gold medals awarded each year than there are po­ten­tial world-class artists. “A Mur­ray Per­ahia does not come along ev­ery day, no mat­ter who wins a com­pe­ti­tion,” Ohls­son said. “Any com­pe­ti­tion just can’t cre­ate such an artist.”

Com­pe­ti­tions, in fact, have gained a rep­u­ta­tion for se­lect­ing bland com­pro­mise win­ners — com­pe­tent but unin­spir­ing tech­ni­cians — rather than more dis­tinc­tive artists who might po­lar­ize ju­ries. Even the most gifted win­ners do not nec­es­sar­ily adapt to the life­style that comes with a fledg­ing in­ter­na­tional ca­reer: the gru­el­ing travel sched­ule, the de­mands of pub­lic­ity and ca­reer man­age­ment, and the re­lent­less pres­sure to win over con­duc­tors, or­ches­tras, crit­ics and au­di­ences in each new city.

Cho ap­pears to have the mu­si­cal po­ten­tial to take his place along­side the greats of the past. He has earned praise, not only for his bul­let­proof tech­nique, but also for his artis­tic voice: his sense of drama, his nat­u­ral no­bil­ity and his youth­fully search­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

Critic Joshua Kos­man, re­view­ing one of Cho’s recitals in March for the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle, summed it up: “Don’t let the com­pe­ti­tion medal fool you. This guy’s an artist.”

Cho has gained al­lies, in­clud­ing the in­flu­en­tial Rus­sian con­duc­tor Valery Gergiev. Last year, Gergiev in­tro­duced Cho to in­com­ing NSO Mu­sic Di­rec­tor Gianan­drea Noseda, who would later con­duct the Lon­don Sym­phony Or­ches­tra on Cho’s beautiful and nu­anced stu­dio record­ing of Chopin’s First Pi­ano Con­certo. As a pro­lific opera con­duc­tor, the Ital­ian mae­stro mar­veled at the “bel canto qual­ity” Cho brought to the con­certo’s slow move­ment. “He made the pi­ano re­ally sing.” Noseda said by tele­phone from Turin, Italy. Noseda was orig­i­nally sched­uled to con­duct Cho’s NSO de­but but can­celed be­cause of emer­gency back surgery.

Born in 1994 in Seoul, Cho was en­cour­aged by his par­ents to learn the pi­ano at an early age so he wouldn’t be lonely as an only child. He be­gan se­ri­ous stud­ies at age 10 and gave his first pub­lic recital at 12. As a teenager, he rode the in­ter­na­tional ju­nior com­pe­ti­tion cir­cuit, mak­ing a pre­co­cious third-place show­ing at the 2011 Tchaikovsky com­pe­ti­tion at 17. In 2012, he left Korea for the Paris Con­ser­va­tory, and he once again took third prize at a ma­jor com­pe­ti­tion — this time, the Ru­bin­stein in 2014 — be­fore his break­through in War­saw.

Cho’s se­cond al­bum fea­tures Chopin’s Four Bal­lades, and he recalls be­ing cap­ti­vated by the dra­matic qual­i­ties of Zimer­man’s classic record­ing of those works as a teenager. “I lis­tened to that al­bum ev­ery day,” Cho says. “Each piece had a dif­fer­ent story.” These days, how­ever, Cho no longer lis­tens to other pi­anists, as he de­vel­ops his own artis­tic voice.

“I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it helps me to bring new ideas,” he says.

In its el­e­gant com­mand of nar­ra­tive struc­tures, Cho’s record­ing of the Chopin Bal­lades bears a re­sem­blance to Zimer­man’s, but Cho’s read­ings are also en­livened by a fresh­ness of de­tail.

At the same time, there is a cool­ness and re­serve, es­pe­cially in the First and Fourth Bal­lades, that sug­gest a young artist not quite cap­tur­ing the in­ten­sity of live per­for­mance in the record­ing stu­dio.

“It’s very dif­fi­cult in the stu­dio, be­cause I have less adren­a­line, so [there is] less ex­cite­ment,” Cho ad­mits. “I play a lit­tle bit slower.”

Cho’s forth­com­ing De­bussy al­bum ap­pears to be, in part, a dec­la­ra­tion that he is more than a Chopin spe­cial­ist.

“There are so many spe­cial com­posers to me, Chopin’s not the only one, I’m sorry to say,” he says, laugh­ing. Cho is an un­abashed Fran­cophile and has had a life­long in­ter­est in French mu­sic. He cred­its his teacher at the Paris Con­ser­va­tory, Michel Béroff, but he also says the ex­pe­ri­ence of sim­ply liv­ing in the his­toric French cap­i­tal — see­ing a paint­ing in a gallery or wan­der­ing the streets — has given him in­sights into the “at­mos­phere and color” of De­bussy’s mu­sic.

For Cho, who oth­er­wise seems to be tak­ing his mu­si­cal achieve­ments in stride, his celebrity sta­tus back home in Korea feels sur­real. As the first Korean win­ner of the Chopin com­pe­ti­tion, Cho be­came a na­tional sen­sa­tion overnight. His de­but al­bum rock­eted to the top of Korea’s Gaon Chart — not the clas­si­cal chart, but the equiv­a­lent of the Bill­board Hot 100 — for a week in 2015. One writer has even coined the term “Cho Seong-Jin syn­drome” to re­fer to the un­prece­dented boom in in­ter­est in clas­si­cal mu­sic in Korea af­ter Cho’s vic­tory

“It was re­ally shock­ing for me,” Cho says about the mo­ment when he knocked the stars of K-pop off their perch. But he is also level-headed enough to re­al­ize that it was an es­sen­tially un­re­peat­able, once-in-a-life­time achieve­ment, a mo­ment when the con­flu­ence of Korean his­tory and the tra­jec­tory of his promis­ing mu­si­cal ca­reer brought the stars into per­fect align­ment.

Al­though it is im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict how a rising young artist will cope with the de­mands of a mu­si­cal ca­reer — and how the larger world will re­ceive him — Cho has al­ready won over dis­cern­ing and vet­eran mu­si­cians. “I have ut­ter con­fi­dence that he re­ally knows what he’s do­ing,” Ohls­son said.

Noseda con­curred: “Seong-Jin has all the qual­i­ties — the hu­man qual­i­ties, the tech­ni­cal qual­i­ties, artis­tic qual­i­ties — to suc­ceed in the mu­sic world for years to come.”

“I was re­ally happy, be­cause I wouldn’t have to play in any more com­pe­ti­tions.” Seong-Jin Cho

HAROLD HOFF­MAN/COUR­TESY OF DEUTSCHE GRAM­MOPHON

Af­ter win­ning the gold medal in the In­ter­na­tional Chopin Pi­ano Com­pe­ti­tion in 2015, Seong-Jin Cho knew his im­me­di­ate fu­ture was set.

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