He's young, cool and worships the piano

Yao Minji
South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho returned to Shanghai this week to perform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to open the city's 10th Music in the Summer Air festival.
Yao Minji
He's young, cool and worships the piano
Ti Gong

Seong-Jin Cho performs with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, opening the summer music festival with a Mozart concerto.

Seong-Jin Cho, the first Korean to win the International Chopin Competition in 2015, returned to Shanghai this week to perform with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to open the city’s 10th Music in the Summer Air festival.

The city was among the first places Cho, 25, played after winning the prestigious event in Warsaw four years ago. He has gone on to play 100 concerts a year, working with musical masters around the world.

For the festival opening on Tuesday, Cho played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, under the baton of orchestra conductor Jaap van Zweden.

Cho enjoys almost K-pop star status in his home country, but inside the veneer of fame lurks a very sensitive soul.

He seems genuinely troubled when asked what he listens to outside of classical music.

He frowns and spends a few seconds pondering the question.

“Outside of classical music?” he says, pausing again. “Actually, I don’t know much about ...”

Another short pause. 

“British bands, sometimes I listen to the Beatles, but I mostly listen to classical music,” he says. “Unfortunately, I don’t have much time even to listen to that. If I have time, I usually go for classical music.”

His hesitant answer is in sharp contrast to a quick response in a previous interview, when he was asked about his music heroes and quickly rattled off the names of Schubert, Mozart, Beethoven, Prokofiev and also Schumann.

Cho remains straightforward and cool throughout our interview. He doesn’t even laugh when he cracks a joke. Maybe he didn’t even realize he has told one.

When asked about what tips he would give to young talent preparing for competitions like he once did, he seems puzzled.

“I don’t know. It’s really difficult to describe,” he told Shanghai Daily at the Shanghai Symphony Hall right after a rehearsal.

“For instance, when I gave an interview to another journalist, she asked how I won the Chopin competition,” he says. “I told her if I knew that, I probably would have won first prize in the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011, instead of third prize.”

He stops and tries again, changing the subject a bit.

“I really don’t know how to win first prizes,” he says. “But after I won the Chopin competition, I had to make a lot of decisions for my career, and I still don’t know what the best answers are. I just followed my instincts.”

Cho’s instincts seem to have turned out rather well so far.

His concerts are sold out. He has legions of fans, especially in South Korea, where he is considered an icon of national pride. 

He studied at the Paris Conservatoire in 2012 and is now based in Germany, where he records under the Deutsche Grammophon label. His interpretations of Chopin, Debussy, Beethoven and Mozart have earned him critical acclaim.

However, he stops short of calling himself a successful musician.

“I don’t know what it means to be a successful musician,” he explains. “If you have a fantastic career, but you are not happy, I don’t think you are a successful musician. The most important thing is being happy. Of course, I really want to play like the great musicians as much as possible. I feel I’m now achieving my childhood dream, so I am grateful. But as a human, I just want to be happy. It is actually difficult to be happy.”

His answer naturally leads to the next question: “Are you not happy now?”

The pianist reveals that what troubles him most is lack of time.

“I’m kind of happy,” he says. “But in the future, I would like to spend more time with my family. I would also like to play better and better.”

By most standards, he is successful. Some critics and classical music fans call him a perfectionist who makes no mistakes.

Cho dismissed such talk in previous interviews with the Polish media, saying he “never thought it essential to play music faultlessly. Music cannot be perfect.”

In Shanghai, he debunks the stereotype of Asian pianists being only technically strong.

“Nationality, whether you are Asian or European, doesn’t matter for music,” he says. “Anyone can play Beethoven. Music is a global language.”

He adds: “It is true that in Asia, the atmosphere is more competitive than in Europe. People from the West think Asian musicians are generally more technical than European or American ones. I don’t agree. That kind of thinking is totally false and prejudiced. As an Asian pianist, I do feel this kind of prejudice sometimes and want to dispel it.”

Cho’s career path and coolness at such a young age easily reminds many Chinese of Li Yundi fever in the Chinese pianist’s early days.

When Li won the Chopin competition in 2000, the event held every five years had produced no champions in the two preceding competitions. Li’s gold medal turned him into a superstar, stirring pride not only in China but across Asia.

Since then, an increasing number of Asian musicians have become superstars in the classical music realm. Witness China’s Lang Lang, whose keyboard virtuosity has won global acclaim.

Before winning the game-changing Chopin competition, Cho won third prizes in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2011 and in the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master competition in Tel Aviv in 2014.

Cho says he is happy to return to Shanghai.

“I have fond memories of Shanghai, when I played here just one month after the Chopin competition,” he says. “Since then, I have been busy and have learned so many things from great musicians. I don’t think I have changed much as a person, but I’m starting to get used to the life of a pianist.”

He explains his choice of the Mozart work for his return performance in Shanghai.

“It is one of my favorite pieces by Mozart, and a very special one,” he says. “It sounds really like an opera. It has dark feelings and yet is very lyrical. It is so popular among musicians because it is so special.”

Cheryl Heng contributed to the article.

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