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León's "Stride" and Ravel, with Seong-Jin Cho and the BSO

Pianist Seong-Jin Cho; composer Tania León
Stephan Rabold: Cho; Gail Hadani: León
Courtesy of the Artists
Pianist Seong-Jin Cho; composer Tania León

Saturday, January 13, 2024

Encore broadcast on Monday, January 22

Recent Pulitzer Prize winner and 2022 Kennedy Center honoree Tania León brings Stride to Symphony Hall, a piece inspired by Susan B. Anthony and the steps women continue to take towards equality. Award-winning pianist Seong-Jin Cho returns to perform Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, composed for pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who lost an arm in World War I. The concert closes with one of the most influential pieces in history: Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Seong-Jin Cho, piano

Tania LEÓN Stride
Maurice RAVEL Piano Concerto for the left hand
Igor STRAVINSKY The Rite of Spring

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Watch Tania León describe the creative process behind Stride.

From NPR: Tania León Wins Music Pulitzer ForStride, Celebrating Women's Resilience.

To hear Seong-Jin Cho preview Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, use the player above, and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Seong-Jin Cho, who's back with the Boston Symphony for the other of Ravel's piano concertos. You played the Piano Concerto in G last year, Seong-Jin, and thank you for a little bit of your time today to talk about the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

Seong-Jin Cho My pleasure.

Brian McCreath This is such an unusual piano concerto in the way that it's constructed, in the role of the piano and the orchestra, the way that they trade ideas back and forth, even in what, of course, you have to do, as it's a left hand-only concerto. So I'd like to ask, first of all, as such an unusual piece, is it one that you learned early on, or has it been a more recent addition to your repertoire?

Seong-Jin Cho Actually, it's a recent addition to my repertoire. And I played this piece for the first time last September in Toronto, and I think I played five times with the orchestra. So this is going to be my sixth time to play with the orchestra.

Brian McCreath I wonder then how you prepared musically. We'll talk about physically in a little bit, but musically, what did you do to prepare in learning the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, especially as it's such a different piece from the other Ravel piano concerto that you played here last year?

Seong-Jin Cho I've been always loving this concerto since many years, and I always wanted to include this concerto in my repertoire, and I'm really glad that I'm finally able to play this piece. And this piece is very different from the G major Concerto, and I feel like this piece is more jazzy and has lots of character in the middle section. It sounds like a military march a little bit, because Ravel composed this piece for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm during the war. And I feel like in this piece you can hear some tragedy and also like a military march. But, you know, there's some kind of spirit in the piece, and I'm always imagining about war and tragedy and sometimes [it's] also very depressing.

Brian McCreath Yes, but at the same time, I have to say, listening to you perform this in rehearsal, your way of playing in general is so beautiful and so fluid. It's a really interesting thing to think of such a dark piece, but also your own way of playing that's so beautiful. Do you tailor your playing in particular ways? Do you play differently in this concerto than you would in, for instance, the G major concerto?

Seong-Jin Cho Yeah. Every time I play a different music, I always tried to play differently and try to be a different person as well, different musician or whatever. So this concerto has two cadenzas, which is really beautiful and also tragic, as I said before. And of course, the orchestra accompanies and Andris accompanies me so wonderfully. So I was very happy.

Brian McCreath Well, as I said, it's such an unusual piece. And the most obvious unusual thing is that your right hand doesn't do anything during the entire piece. And so I wonder how you train yourself. Are there particular exercises, etudes, other pieces you play to get used to the idea of only playing with your left hand, and figuring out even what to do with your right hand while you're playing?

Seong-Jin Cho Even though, technically, it's so demanding, and I've never played a piece only for the left hand before, I think the music itself is so beautiful and wonderful. So when I play this piece, I stop thinking about that I'm playing only [with] my left hand. But of course it's so difficult, especially the cadenzas. They're so difficult and it's so tempting, because I want to use my right hand also. [laughs]

Brian McCreath [laughing] Another question that I wondered, with all the left hand repertoire, how tempting is it to just throw your right hand for a note here or there? It must be kind of funny to think that way.

Seong-Jin Cho Yeah, I shouldn't. [laughs]

Brian McCreath [laughs] Well, tell me this. Another unusual thing to me as I listen to the concerto, compared to something along the lines of Beethoven, Schumann, even Chopin. There's so much more piano and orchestra together in this concerto that you have to be 100% locked in with Andris and his way of doing this piece. Was it at all hard to come together on the way that you would do this together with you and Andris?

Seong-Jin Cho So right before the rehearsal, Andris and I had a very nice meeting, and we shared our ideas about this piece. And he and I agreed that there's a nice conversation between the orchestra and the piano. And we share the same spirit and character. And also, I have to say that whenever I perform this piece, it's so fun to play. And because the orchestration is fantastic, first of all. And of course, the piano part is also fantastic. So I feel like I'm also becoming not only the pianist, but part of the orchestra member[ship] when I play this piece.

Brian McCreath Yeah, it's like being part of the orchestra, maybe more so than some other concertos, I suppose. Now, you studied with a teacher in Korea named Soo-Jung Shin, who herself studied with Leon Fleisher, someone very well known for this piece of music, because he exclusively performed left hand only music for so long. Is there anything that you would point to from your studies with her about music, about the way that Leon Fleisher thought of music that maybe helps you with your approach to the Ravel?

Seong-Jin Cho I think my teacher, Soo-Jung Shin, was hugely influenced by Leon Fleisher, and I could feel that, and not only for Ravel, but in general, I learned so much of phrasing. And she told me many stories about Leon Fleisher, and his making of phrasing is so special. And I think I learned a lot from her.

Brian McCreath Absolutely. It's been many years now since you won the International Chopin Competition, enough years, and with a pandemic in between that it must seem like a very long time ago for you. And I guess I read somewhere that you needed to stop playing Chopin for a period of time. What is your relationship now with music by Chopin? Is it a composer to whom you actually play a lot now, or are you still a little bit keeping some distance from Chopin's music?

Seong-Jin Cho Of course, as a winner of the [International] Chopin Competition, I had to play a lot of Chopin right after the competition. But I really didn't want to be labeled as a Chopin specialist because I wanted to play different repertoire as well, like Brahms, Mozart, Beethoven. As a pianist, we're so fortunate to have so much repertoire. But now I feel like I don't care anymore, and I don't care what people say anyway, so I think being a Chopin specialist is also a very special thing. And I'd be honored if someone called me a "Chopin specialist." But I don't consider myself as a Chopin specialist, but of course, Chopin is one of my favorite composers and I still play. Before coming to Boston, I was in Amsterdam and I played Chopin's Concerto [No. 1] in E minor with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. So yes, I'm playing Chopin's music, not solo music, but concertos quite often. And I'm planning to play more of Chopin's solo music in the future.

Brian McCreath Wonderful. Well, we here in Boston think of you as someone with a huge range because we've heard you play Prokofiev, Brahms, Mozart, and now Ravel. So there's a lot to choose from, and we're always interested to hear what you're going to do here in Boston. So Seong-Jin Cho, thank you so much. It's really good to hear you again. It's really wonderful to have you back in Symphony Hall. Thank you for your time today.

Seong-Jin Cho Thank you very much.