Soft-spoken in conversation, Seong-Jin Cho is a force at the piano. At only 24-years-old, he has already released his third album, a collection of works by Debussy, on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label. It was his win in 2015 at the XVII International Chopin Piano Competition that propelled him to fame and landed him his first album with Deutsche Grammophon.
A Debussy album came naturally for Cho. Born in South Korea, he has been studying with Michel Béroff in Paris for several years, so it is fitting that he should release an album of works from this iconic French composer. But well before his Paris studies began, he was already exploring music by Debussy. “I gave my first public recital when I was 11 years old in Korea and I played music by Mozart, Chopin, and Debussy at that time…Debussy’s music has been very, very natural for me because I have been playing it [for] so long. And living in Paris, also, inspires me a lot to interpret his music.”
For the uninitiated, Debussy was a French composer during the Impressionism art movement in Paris. Impressionism came to be a term applied to music as well, and though he rejected the term, there is no escaping the connection between his music and this visual art movement. Interpreting Debussy is an art in itself. When Cho plays Debussy, he likes to think about nature or color, describing Debussy’s imagination as “limitless.” If the sound is supposed to be like something specific, “like a bell or water,” he says, “I just imagine and try to produce that kind of sound on the piano.” His vivid interpretations seem easy when you listen to the recording, and he speaks about this process with the same ease.
Going from the world of concerts and competitions to the recording studio is no small leap. “The recording session is quite tough for me.” He explains that when performing in concert, there is a tension that naturally comes from being in front of an audience. That tension is lacking in the studio, an environment he describes as being more relaxed. “It’s quite dangerous – sometimes we need the tension when we play music, so I just try to think, oh it is a concert.” He avoids editing and instead tries to use only one take in the studio.
Cho fell in love with classical music as a child. “I listened to a lot of classical music because my parents were classical music lovers.” He says that because of this, classical music felt very natural to him. He specifically remembers being amazed by Krystian Zimmerman’s Chopin Ballads album at age 10 or 11. Even in his off hours, when he listens to music, he still usually chooses classical.
As a concert pianist, Cho’s average day is far from typical for most people. But aside from the demands of traveling and perfecting his craft (he tries to practice 3-4 hours a day when he is not traveling), his downtime ensure he stays balanced. He moved to Berlin last year, and enjoys spending time with friends in the city.
Despite his young age, Cho’s career already contains some amazing moments. A particularly memorable moment for him came last year when he was asked to fill in for Lang Lang with the Berlin Philharmonic. Playing with the Berlin Philharmonic had been a dream of his since childhood, something he described as a highlight of his life.
Cho’s passion for classical music and for the piano is clear, both in listening to him play, and in speaking to him. Having already come so far in his young career, he says he wants to continue doing this until he is 80 or beyond. I have no doubt he will.
– Submitted by Erin Yousef, Music Design