Ahead of his recital as part of Abu Dhabi Classics this February, writer Camille Hogg talks to award-winning pianist Seong-Jin Cho about his journey to becoming a world-renowned classical musician and knocking K-Pop off the album charts
The moment that made Seong-Jin Cho’s career was on 20th October 2015.
Standing backstage in a hushed auditorium, the then-21-year-old Seong-Jin circled his wrists nervously before walking on stage, sitting at a highly polished Steinway piano and striking the first notes of Frederic Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E Minor, Opus 11.
The concert was not an ordinary one; it was the final stage of the notoriously difficult International Chopin Piano Competition, known for launching the careers of some of the most celebrated concert pianists in the world.
On that night, the young Korean pianist took home gold, as well as the knowledge that he’d finally made it.
“It’s a very difficult world in music,” he tells us. “There are so many great pianists that breaking out on your own is difficult.”
Yet despite his own win, Seong-Jin is not a fan of a process that judges a musician’s future success with competitions, and thinks talent cannot be judged by one performance.
“I don’t like the idea of competitions,” he confides. “It’s very difficult to judge the real art. Everybody has a different take of the music and different ears, which makes it difficult to truly rank the pianist. Some pianists are able to launch their careers without this process, but me, I was not lucky enough, and it gave me an opportunity.”
Seong-Jin’s journey to this point began when he was six and decided that all he wanted to do was play the piano: “I also played the violin, but I don’t think I could have been a famous violinist,” he laughs when we ask. “I only liked playing the piano; I just wanted to play.”
As years of passion and work have become his career, Seong-Jin has taken everything life has thrown at him, including playing over 100 recitals a year, honing his craft to audiences of thousands and releasing an album that toppled K-pop off the top spot in his home country.
“I heard about that,” he says. “Classical music is less popular than K-pop, but I just hope that more and more people start to enjoy classical music. The audiences are very young in Korea, compared to Europe and the States. I think that’s a good thing.
“I can’t say I’m more confident now,” he chuckles self-deprecatingly, when asked if he thinks his style has matured since that landmark competition. “I think my performance style has changed – and I don’t know if it’s getting better, but I have new ideas [about] how to play a piece.”
It’s the new ideas and ways of reimagining the music of long-dead composers to fit with our day and age that make the young pianist so remarkable. Known for his ability to emote through the music while playing pieces of incredible complexity, his raw talent has wowed audiences from Tokyo to Berlin.
“When I play Chopin’s music, the music itself is very romantic and poetic, and it makes me feel sensitive,” he reflects. “But when I play Beethoven with the orchestra, I try to become a conductor on the piano. Your personality should change with the music.”
And for Seong-Jin, music isn’t just a one-sided exchange – the audience has their role to play, too: “After the concert, if there’s a good reaction, of course I’m happy. But it’s their reactions during the performance that are the most important. I really appreciate the audiences who concentrate on the music.”
Seong-Jin Cho will play two recitals in Abu Dhabi on 7th and 8th February. Tickets start from AED 105. For more information, visit: ticketmaster.ae