Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
I entered Kindergarten when I was five years old. I remember in the classroom that there was a big vertical box that produced fascinating combinations of high and low sounds as my teacher pushed on distinctive-looking keys on it. The exterior of that magical soundbox was black, but I could understand even then that it used to have a mirror finish, but the passage of time got to it. I don’t remember it clearly, but my mom tells me that it was the kindergarten teacher, who happened to be a piano teacher for that town, that encouraged me to take piano lessons since I showed great interest in that big faded-black magic box. I am very thankful that my parents were “cool” enough for a boy to take a piano lesson! I remember starting the lessons with the infamous “Bayel” Book I and II! I think I aced the books within a couple of weeks. All I had to do was to push the keys according to what was written on the page. Little did I know then that pressing the right keys was just the beginning! I owe it to my dear Kindergarten teacher for getting me started in music. My older sister, Soo-Young, who would but be left behind, started promptly with me. But unlike me, she was blessed with the voice and later majored in voice and choral conducting and is very active in that field! I did accompany her a lot in her recitals and auditions, though!
I had my share of incredible teachers in my studies, but if I have to mention one person, I would proudly call upon Ms. Nina Svetlanova, I studied with her during my doctoral studies at Manhattan School of Music in my thirties. I wasn’t too sure what to do with my life in my twenties, and I indeed stopped being a musician in my late twenties and studied for going to law school. In about six months or so of studying for going to law school, I realized most severely that I really missed music. It was then that I really decided to be a musician for once and for all because we only get to have one chance in life. I thought, in order to do so, was the best idea to go back to school. I hold the DMA degree from the Manhattan School of Music now (Doctor of Musical Arts), and it turned out to be the best thing I ever did in my musical career! They say that the doctoral degree will give you the right tools to continue the pursuit of further studies in whatever field you are in. They were right! Not only it was very difficult to be accepted into the doctoral studies at MSM, but the courses (especially Music Theory) also prepared me to be a thinker in our wonderful field which is musical arts. I realized that being a good musician did not mean just playing whatever instrument one plays well, but it had to do with the continuation of an incredible tradition that has been passed down through generations – in this case, generations of musicians – and that music is not just a form of mere entertainment, but a form of study in humanity right along with science and mathematics, etc. I had such moments of revelations that I started being in awe of all those genius composers who came before me and I dare to reproduce their art.
I remember my very first meeting with Ms. Svetlanova. I played the pieces I prepared and played them on her Steinway. She was silent for a while, then asked me why I came to her. I don’t remember exactly what I said to her but I remember vividly what she told me. “You are a great pianist already, but I am sorry! You have much to learn! I could teach you what you lack, more colours in your sonic palette!”. I didn’t know what she meant at the time exactly, but I knew that I was in the right place. Since I started to work with Nina, I learned not only the secrets of the Neuhaus school (she entered his studio when she was only sixteen and passed on to me many secrets of the piano playing. I should know, my doctoral dissertation was on her teaching!), but Nina’s knows-how. She was forever artistic, but she always was able to tell me how to realize those ephemeral ideas into reality. I remember her saying to me: “Jae, you have to play with such and such. In order to do it, you should…..” (Shhh! It’s a secret! She always told me not to tell anyone about it!)
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
I started piano when I was six years old in South Korea in the late 1970s. I had little understanding of what music really is. I am grateful that I had an opportunity to go to the United States to further my music studies. I think I was a good typist then, meaning being able to push the right keys at the right time. It was much later on in my life when I realized what ‘legato’ really meant. Mr. Solomon Mikowsky would try to make me understand the concept during my pre-college days, but I think it was not until my late twenties that I finally began to think about it. It was hard to grasp the idea because the piano is a percussive instrument by nature. A series of hammers (usually 88 of them from the low register to very high!) strike the strings – made of steel of industrial quality – the sound produced by the strings then would be transferred to a wooden board to hopefully and magnificently magnify the resulting vibrations of various frequencies to deliver to the audience through the acoustics of the given space! Hew! It’s quite an involved process when you think about it. The mechanism of the action of the piano has evolved to the point that it could evolve no further, and the double-escarpment action is the main feather of today’s modern pianos. Even then, there are so many variables in the action that I started to learn the ways the piano action work just so that I could adjust the given instrument that I am to perform that given day because sometimes there isn’t just enough time to wait for the technicians. The action of the piano is a world of its own and it is most sensitive, it would indeed take a lifetime to arrive at the state one is happy with. Isn’t that wonderful? The piano is, after all, a man-made device, but it comes with endless possibilities!
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I think I am in good company when I say I am not satisfied with most of my recordings. Because we are programmed to do always better the next time, we always long for that elusive take that is better than the last. But, the reality is that one is limited to space and time, and I realize now that we should be proud of what we could do at that moment and move on just as our lives keep moving on without fail. On that note, I have to say that I am proud of all my recordings as they were snapshots of what and where I used to be. But I also take solace in that those snapshots are not where I am or where I am going to be. We, as musicians, will always evolve and try to make things better, and I think this is one of the reasons that we could dedicate a lifetime to it. Life is wonderful!
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
My first studio recording was Beethoven’s piano sonatas. When I was given choices for the repertoire for the CD, I opted for a more difficult way. One usually cannot hide behind Beethoven’s music and this is why his works are usually required in auditions and competitions. Along with perhaps Bach and Mozart, we have no choice but to bare who and what we are as musicians in playing their music and I wanted to challenge myself with the first album. Then the concertos came. Beethoven, Liszt, Rachmaninov! No one will dare to dispute me when I say they are incredible geniuses. I always wanted to record Rachmaninov’s piano concertos since I was 16 and I was fortunate to realize with his No. 2 and 3. Then I got to think, what about Chopin? Mr. Chopin not only dedicated his entire life to a single instrument that is piano, I think his merit lies in the incredible expansion of musical vocabulary! He is touted to be the poet of music. I understand that a poet is someone who takes the existing language and takes the words to the next plane of existence by rearranging and reinventing it. Mr. Chopin did the exact same with music! It’s incredible to study his works and their nuances and subtleties. I think he was a master in harmonic coloration: take harmony and change but just one note and we would have a completely new vocabulary with different nuances! It’s miraculous! Mr. Chopin led the way in the further development of music which is a universal language.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I am of the school that one should, or try not to have jinks or habits before going onto the stage as I find it very limiting to have such a thing. But is that already a jinx? I find, as I get (dare I say it) older, that the most important thing in life is the family, be it your spouse, companion animals, what have you. They are the ones that are waiting for you at the end of a concert, and they will tell you how the concert really went! Our loved ones are the blessings in our lives, and Inyoung, the ultimate companion of my life!, is my biggest influence and inspiration! She also possesses the most accurate set of ears!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
May I say that I am ‘greedy’ in the repertoire department? I am always in awe of Maria Callas who covered a vast area of repertoire and I strive to do the same. If I may confess, I like variety in music (and food as well!). I have so far recorded Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninov. My next project includes Debussy and composers of later years, and I am thankful that I can at least plan for future performances and recordings. Someone recently told me that the future exists as long as we are in it, and I plan for my future with gratitude. I hope I am in it!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I can’t say I have my favourite venues. I can say for sure that in order for someone to go to a concert, one has to not only buy a ticket by spending their money, but they actually have to invest their time to be at the concert hall. This is no small feat in one’s life and I am ever so much more grateful for the people who come to my concerts.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
As time passes, I realize that nothing in life worth anything comes easy. Wouldn’t it be nice if it did? But alas! I think classical music is one of the greatest cultural legacies that the human race has produced, and there is a reason that the works and tradition continue and evolves to this day. These are the works that passed the test of time and they are part of the testament of who we are as the human race on earth. Having said that, there are many levels of music: incidental music to fill the air while some people are dining, but some very serious such as symphonies, etc. I think it’s our obligation as classical musicians to declare the musical words as much as we can and continue the legacy of the music which is such an integral part of humanity since ancient times. It is also very exciting to see where the evolution of our music would lead us! Alas! My life is but limited on earth.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I was in Guadalajara, Mexico. I was to play with their orchestra Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3. The first concert was on Friday and the second was on the following Sunday at Noon. It was my first time being in Mexico and I was deeply touched by the generosity and hospitality of the people there. Someone insisted that I should pay a visit to the Herradura factory, one of the main producers of tequila. I thought I would tour the factory on a Saturday morning and spend the rest of the day practicing in the city. Little did I know that the trip was for the whole day and there was so much merry-making to be had complete with a mariachi band. My tolerance for alcohol was limited (at the time!), and I was swept away by the atmosphere and free-flowing drinks. The next thing I remember is waking up on Sunday at 11 a.m. Yikes! I hurried to the concert hall and may I tell you, I played my heart out and the member of the audience came up to me after the concert and just wept with me! I know that alcohol does something to the frontal lobe, and Nina always has told me to let go of things sometimes. Go figure!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
I feel that as a performer, it is my first and utmost duty to study and try to realize the composer’s intentions. Alas, the resolution of the written notes and words on paper is quite low, but we can make educated guesses to try and see what they really meant by those notes and phrasing lines. I will be very happy if I made some difference in people’s lives as they listen to my (ultimately the composers’) music. Music comes from the past, but it is the present, and it is our future.
What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?
There are so many different disciplines in the world that one could follow, but if you are one of the lucky ones that have been called by music, please don’t let anything come between you and it. I once was away from music, but I was miserable without it when I was away. I finally decided to go into it again wholeheartedly despite the possible hardships in life. The caveat is that we only have one chance in our lives and I finally came to the conclusion that would be well worth it if we muster enough courage to dedicate our given lives to the things that we are passionate about the most!
What’s next? Where would you like to be in 10 years?
My latest album of Chopin’s 4 Ballades and Piano Sonata No. 3 has been released in Europe and now Korea. I was grateful to meet the German audience in three different cities, and I am now looking forward to meeting the Korean audience in eight different cities! I honestly don’t know where I would be in ten years, but if I learned anything, I know that I have to give my best for today and now because the future will exist only if I am in it.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Being in the present with my family, especially with my beloved Inyoung and our dog, Sommi! She is a five-year-old white Pomeranian, and she is teaching us so many things in life including unconditional love!
Jae-Hyuck Cho’s disc Ballades is out now on the Orchid Classics label
Acclaimed pianist and organist Jae-Hyuck Cho is one of the most active concert artists in South Korea. He is one of the rare musicians who makes both piano and organ as his main instruments, he has been described as “a musician who is nearing perfection with extraordinary breadth of expression, flawless technique and composition, sensitivity and intelligence, insightful and detailed playing without exaggeration.”