Chopin Competition winner wows Hyde Park

Pianist Seong-Jin Cho, the first Korean to win the Chopin International Competition. (Photo courtesy of Harald Hoffman/DG)

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Seong-Jin Cho made his Chicago debut in a stunning concert in Hyde Park on Friday night. The Korean pianist, the first person from his country to win the Chopin International Competition, put his mastery on display, performing works from Bach to Mussorgsky. Members of the Korean community were significantly represented at the concert, which found Mandel Hall packed to the rafters.

Cho is only 24, but plays with depth and great technical skill. His rapid passage work is fluid, clear, and dazzling. He is a master of mood and has a silky legato. He is confident but not arrogant, technically brilliant yet not overly showy. He is a mild mannered man with prodigious talent who provided a thrilling evening of music.

He opened his concert, the first half made up of “fantasies” (music creating imaginary worlds or ideas), with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D Minor. The trippingly fast lines were breathtaking. He knew when to draw on angels and when to listen to devils. He placed a pregnant pause before moving from fantasy to fugue and then built up great power all the while maintaining clarity.

Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasie” had lots of fizz and pop with the pianist easily moving through the rough and tumble portions of the opening. The second section was slow and deliberate, drawing portraits of both sunshine and storm. The dotted rhythms of the following section were given a light-hearted touch while the finale was performed with tremendous power and drive.

The Polonaise-fantaisie in A-flat Major by Chopin displayed Cho’s beautiful phrasing and feather-light touch. His virtuosity was evident throughout and his gentle moments were striking, with the delicacy of watercolor clouds in a misty morning.

After the intermission Cho took on the biggest work on the program, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” This popular piece is made up of ten musical portraits of paintings by the composer’s friend Victor Hartmann, plus a repeated theme (a promenade) representing folks walking through the gallery, which Mussorgsky said was a self-portrait. Cho was a master at giving the promenade various moods, from amiable to noble. In its first occurrence, the sound was bell-like and it evoked the happy chatter of gallery-goers.

“Gnomus,” a portrait of a twisted gnome, sounded mysterious, grotesque, and fascinating. Cho gave “Il Vecchio Castello” (“The Old Castle”) a far-away sound that was somber and dark with haunting hushed moments. “Tuileries,” depicting children in a Paris park, was bubbling and frisky and Cho had a wonderfully light hand for the kids dashing about.

The pianist perfectly captured the ponderously heavy load of an ox-cart in the mud in “Bydlo,” while you could almost hear chirping and scurrying in “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells.” I loved the near-frenzy in the Limoges market scene as well as the swirling danger and strangeness of “Baba-Yaga.” Cho closed the work with a magisterial reprise of the promenade which had the power of a cannon.

He offered two encores. First was a quiet and reflective “October” from “The Seasons” by Tchaikovsky. Cho then closed out the evening with a dazzling performance of Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise.

The full house was made up of marvelous listeners. Mandel Hall has at times had a problem with noisy patrons (coughing, cell phones, feedback from hearing aids), but this evening the audience sat with rapt attention throughout, only exploding in applause when works were complete. Some members of the audience added cheers and hollers as well, and when the concert was over more than half the folks were immediately on their feet and most of the rest followed quite quickly. It was a glorious evening of music by a young virtuoso, and one not soon to be forgotten.