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Seong-Jin Cho Plays Ravel with Nelsons and the BSO

Seong-Jin Cho, facing left, leans one elbow on the upright piano and plays the keys with his other hand
Christoph Kostl
Deutsche Grammophon
Seong-Jin Cho

Saturday, December 2nd, 2023

In an encore broadcast, renowned South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho is the soloist in Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, and Andris Nelsons leads the Boston Symphony in Caroline Shaw’s meditative Punctum and Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Seong-Jin Cho, piano

Caroline SHAW Punctum
Maurice RAVEL Piano Concerto in G
Igor STRAVINSKY Petrushka (1947 version)

This concert was originally broadcasted on April 29th, 2023 and is no longer available on demand.

To hear a preview of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G with Seong-Jin Cho, use the player above, and read the transcript below:

Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Seong-Jin Cho, the pianist who's back in Boston after a few years, it turns out that you were here in 2020, just before everything got locked down for the pandemic. Seong-Jin Cho, thank you so much for a little bit of your time today.

Seong-Jin Cho My pleasure. It's really great to be back.

Brian McCreath You did Prokofiev [Piano Concerto No. 2] here for your BSO debut in 2020. And I just, you know, I wonder if you can reflect if you look back at March 2020, how different a person are you now from at that point?

Seong-Jin Cho Oh, I mean [laughs], it was a totally different world back then, and it was one of my last concerts before the pandemic, and I didn't expect something very big before the pandemic. I mean, when I was in Boston, because no one could expect what is going to happen. But I knew, or I felt that something is going to happen, but I didn't know what that is. So, yeah, I'm very grateful that I'm back here. And it is my third collaboration with Andris, so I'm really happy.

Brian McCreath Yeah, and I think you speak for a lot of us when you say that you couldn't imagine what was about to come in March of 2020. But we're glad you're back now. And with Ravel, it's especially wonderful to hear you play Ravel with the Boston Symphony. Tell me about the Piano Concerto in G. You know, you spent many years doing competitions and that culminated with winning the [International] Chopin [Piano] Competition. Were you able to take on something like the Ravel G Major during those years? I don't know if it's a competition piece or not, but when did you take this concerto on as one of the pieces you wanted to add to your repertoire?

Seong-Jin Cho Actually, I'm very familiar with French music in general because I studied in Paris for four years and this Concerto in G, first time I played, I was in Seoul and with Seoul Philharmonic when I was 15 years old in 2009 with Myung-Whun Chung, Korean conductor. So . . . and I've been playing this concerto so many times since then, and it is just fun to play with the orchestra. And there's like continuous dialog between the piano and the orchestra. And the second movement, it is so beautiful and lonely. So I can say this is one of my favorite concertos.

Brian McCreath Yeah. And I'm fascinated that you were you were playing it when you were that young, and then you went to Paris to study. Did moving to Paris kind of give you an extra angle, extra perspective on this piece that you hadn't had before?

Seong-Jin Cho Well, maybe a long time ago there was kind of like piano school existing, like Russian piano school or French piano school. But I don't think that anymore. Maybe there is. But like what I learned from Paris, it's not about the French piano school. It was about the French culture. So I feel like I just learned something unconsciously. So like . . . French spirit kind of thing. I think I could absorb very unconsciously when I was in Paris.

Brian McCreath Right. That makes a lot of sense that you just . . . you soak up the surroundings, and that kind of makes its way into everything that you do in music, I suppose. So tell me when you learned of the opportunity to come to Boston to play this particular music, what went through your mind about playing Ravel with the Boston Symphony?

Seong-Jin Cho I know the Boston Symphony has a very great tradition about the French repertoire, and I just finished our first rehearsal and I was so impressed [laughs] by their playing. I think I've never experienced this kind of smooth rehearsal before. I'm sure they know the piece and it is in their blood. I could feel that. So it was so, so easy to play with them and so enjoyable.

Brian McCreath Listening to this very first rehearsal, I have to share with you my own impression, which is that there was like an electric bolt that went through you and the orchestra. There was so much energy on the stage, and so hearing you describe it as smooth and fluid . . . that goes along with this energy. Did you feel that kind of energy as well?

Seong-Jin Cho Oh, yes. It was so fun! [both laugh]

Brian McCreath That's terrific. Tell me a little bit about your most recent recording that you've released. Handel: it's so different from Ravel. And of course, you recorded this months and months ago, but you were just here in Boston, what was it, four months ago, five months ago, to play a recital that involved Handel and the Brahms Handel Variations [Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel]. Tell me how different it is to play the Handel suites that you recorded compared to this Ravel Piano concerto.

Seong-Jin Cho It is a totally different language. This is like . . . [laughs] explaining about the difference between German and French language [both laugh]. They're totally different. Perhaps Spanish and Italian, they're a little bit similar, but French and German, they're totally different. And yeah, I was interested in Baroque music, so I decided to record and play this Handel because not so many people play this music on modern piano these days. But I discovered this piece during the pandemic, and immediately I feel like, "Oh, I just want to play this piece."

Brian McCreath It is an interesting choice because I would, you know, sort of expect for a lot of people that when they go into Baroque music as a pianist, maybe they'll try Bach first. But you chose Handel. Not that, I mean, that's great music as well. Tell me about whether that was even a factor in your decision to do Handel for this recording instead of Bach.

Seong-Jin Cho If I'm being honest, I felt like I was not ready to play Bach yet. I admire and respect Bach, and it's so different from Handel, even though they're both like German [laughs] composers. But Handel's music is more melodic and there's an emotional landscape. But, while Bach is more intellectual and more . . . more complex. So for me, as a Bach music beginner, Handel's music was more easy to follow and understand because I've been playing so much of romantic and classical repertoire and as well the 20th century music, and Bach was so new to me and Handel was quite easy, easier to follow. And of course, I love to explore more of Bach in the future. But I just wanted to start with Handel.

Brian McCreath What did you do with this recording in order to play Handel? How did it . . . how did you adjust your playing on the modern piano to play this music compared to those, as you say, these other romantic and classical pieces that you've been doing with orchestras and recitals?

Seong-Jin Cho Well, I did a lot of experiments and I prepare for this program, and then I decided to . . . I decided not to use the pedal when I play this music. And because it is easier for me to make the sound that I want to produce, and the articulation and the phrasing is so different from the romantic repertoire. So it was very demanding and it was a big journey for me.

Brian McCreath Yeah, I imagine that when you are playing the way that you always have, using the pedal to get certain effects, to sustain notes in ways that suddenly if you decide you're not going to, there is a whole new set of questions that comes up for almost everything you're doing in these pieces by Handel.

Seong-Jin Cho Right. But for me, when I use the pedal and I played the Baroque music, it became even more difficult because I just wanted to produce the sound which is a little bit more clear, and I just wanted to hear all the voices. All the voices were very important, and I just wanted to show and play them as clear as possible.

Brian McCreath Last summer you came to Tanglewood for the very first time, and we're very delighted that you'll be there again this summer. Tell me what your impression was of Tanglewood and the Koussevitzky Music Shed playing in that space when you did Brahms last summer?

Seong-Jin Cho Oh, it was a great, great experience, a great time. So beautiful landscape, fresh air. Just one problem. One issue was I play in the afternoon and it was so hot [laughs].

Brian McCreath It was a hot summer. Yes.

Seong-Jin Cho And I had to play Brahms's Second [Piano] Concerto, which is not like a piece of cake [both laugh].

Brian McCreath That's true. Nobody thinks of the Brahms Second as a walk in the park, so to speak. But yes, tell me about your choice of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 to perform this summer with Susanna Mälkki. What is it about that piece that made you want to bring it to Tanglewood?

Seong-Jin Cho I'll be playing this concerto in summer in Salzburg and also in Korea. And I'm learning it now, and I'm always astonished by this piece, because Mozart was even younger than me, much younger than me, and he was able to compose this kind of great art, especially . . . For me, everyone says like the second movement is genius, but for me, the last movement is genius. Of course, second movement is so beautiful and it's so . . . how can I say, it's so deep. But the last movement, in the middle part, it is kind of like saying goodbye or some kind of thing. It is in major key, but it is so sad. I don't know how he composed it like this way, but maybe that's why he's a genius.

Brian McCreath That's fantastic. Yeah, I love that perception of the piece. That's really wonderful. Seong-Jin Cho, it's really, really nice to talk with you. Nice to meet you. Lovely to hear you here in Symphony Hall playing Ravel with the BSO. So thank you for a little bit of your time today. I appreciate it.

Seong-Jin Cho My pleasure. Thank you.