Abu Dhabi Classics 2018: Seong-Jin Cho on bringing the magic of Debussy to the capital

South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho talks to us about his new album and his mixed feelings towards competitions ahead of his Abu Dhabi Classics performance

BERLIN, GERMANY - OCTOBER 30: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Pianist Seong-Jin Cho performs live on stage during Yellow Lounge organized by recording label Deutsche Grammophon at Kaufhaus Jandorf on October 30, 2017 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Stefan Hoederath/Redferns)
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It was a telling moment.

When the award committee called out the winning names of the 2015 ­International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, the third and second place contestants – Canada’s Richard Hamelin and Kate Liu from the United States – were almost in tears at the ­magnitude of their achievement.

But when it came to Seong-Jin Cho being announced the victor, his relief was palpable, which you can see in the YouTube video of the competition.

The eyes widened in realisation and his shoulders slumped, seemingly ­dissipating all the tension associated with one of the world’s most rigorous music competitions.

Despite the win launching a successful solo career and his name joining the list of legendary winners, such as Poland's Krystian Zimerman and the Argentinian great Martha Argerich, the 23-year-old has mixed feelings about that heady experience. "I hate all competitions," he says.

“Personally speaking, I don’t the like idea of them. My dream was to be a concert pianist and I was not lucky enough to do that through other means. So I had to do these competitions to continue my career in Europe. But, at the same time, winning the Chopin competition is amazing as it did give me a lot of opportunities.”

Not only did it result in recitals in hallowed classical music institutions such as New York's Carnegie Hall and St Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, being the first South Korean artist to achieve such a feat made him a superstar back home.

Cho’s concerts are immediately sold out in the capital, Seoul, and the concert recordings of Cho’s Chopin Competition win dislodged a slew of K-pop boy bands to land at the top of the charts in 2015.

His status as an icon of South Korea's classical music scene is partly behind his UAE debut as part of Abu Dhabi Classics this week.

Cho's recitals at NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Centre and Qasr Al Sarab, on Wednesday and Thursday respectively, are meant to coincide with South Korea taking the international centre-stage by hosting the 23rd Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang on Friday.

But his Abu Dhabi ­programme is a markedly European affair.

His performance will include the concert closer of Chopin's Piano Sonata No 3 in B minor, Op 58, the same piece that earned Cho a standing ovation at the competition finals in Warsaw three years ago.

The programme will also feature the works of Debussy, ­Images Book 1 and 2 (on Wednesday and Thursday respectively), which are also included in Cho's latest album dedicated to the French composer.

Cho explains that the project, titled Debussy, was not only a way to move out of his Chopin comfort zone but it also comes from an affinity with the Debussy work that Cho delved into while studying impressionist art in Paris.

He saw a clear link between both artistic worlds.

“His pieces are all colourful and vibrant,” Cho says. “Debussy was not a fan of the word impressionistic – I guess that meant something different in that time – but I do see a relation with his work and the vivid paintings of that time,” he says.

It was Debussy’s mastery of conveying the imagery through his playing that forms the ­biggest challenge when tackling his oeuvre.

For example, Cho points to the difficulties of breathing life into the classical music standard Clair de lune, which in his hands take on a more elegiac tone.

“If we talk about his piece, then we know it’s very famous. So what I needed to do here is approach it with a certain level of creativity,” he says.

“It is difficult to find your own voice in this as it has been covered by masters in the past. I had to use my imagination, and I went to this piece with an image of something fluttering and that earliest patch of bright moonlight.”

One challenge that Cho overcame when it came to Debussy was conquering the studio. Despite being hailed for his technical proficiency, Cho's debut album – which had him take on Chopin's Piano Concerto No 1 – was softly criticised in some media quarters for lacking the kinetic energy so central to his live performances.


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"That first album was difficult to record," he says.

“I knew it would be different than a concert performance, but the fact there was no audience in the studio that I could get energy from took some time to get used to. So with the Debussy album, I had to get into the mentality that this was a live performance concert. I just played all the pieces through without stopping.”

Such perpetual motion is the way Cho approaches his career in general. He describes his life as one of constant movement, the latest of which was last year's relocation from Paris to Berlin: "I have rarely been in the new place because I have just been travelling for all these performances."

He sees the dry irony of it all: the fact that Cho's solo travels as concert pianist all stem from his parents encouraging him to first take on the instrument as a six year-old to combat the loneliness of being an only child.

Despite the busy schedule, which includes returning to a studio to record an album dedicated to the works of Mozart, Cho says he is able to find a sense of balance by focusing on living in the moment.

“It is about finding a sense of peace,” he says.

“I want to be more aware and open to meeting new people and learning from them. I also want to make sure I spend time with friends and family, as that is important when it comes to what I do. I know it sounds basic, but for me these [goals] are important.”

Seong-Jin Cho performs at the Arts Centre at NYU Abu Dhabi on Wednesday and Anantara Qasr Al Sarab on Thursday. Performances start at 7pm.
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