Nothing captures the ambivalence many musicians feel toward piano competitions — those high-stakes Olympics of the musical world — better than the reaction of the rising South Korean star Seong-Jin 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 pressure-filled, 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, Korea, 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.”