Seong-Jin Cho explores the Baroque through lens of ‘The Handel Project’

Experience counts in just about everything, and that includes piano competitions. By the time that Seong-Jin Cho appeared at the 2015 Chopin International Competition in Warsaw, the Korean-born pianist had won awards in two previous contests, so he knew what to expect.

Perhaps even more important, he had already performed 50 concerts alone in 2010 when he was 16 as part of the prizes from a Japanese competition. “I got to know what the life of pianist looked like,” he said. “I like traveling, and I like performing for audiences around the world, so ever since then, I wanted to build my career in Europe and also in America.”

His victory at the Chopin competition solidified his place on the international classical scene, and it set off a series of events that boosted his career even more. In January 2016, he signed an exclusive contract with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, and a year later, he debuted with the conductor Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic as a substitute for Lang Lang on an Asian tour. “I think that helped a lot,” he said. “Since 2017, my career has gone much better and smoother, especially in Germany.”

Cho will make his first appearance May 21 on the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series, and he is set to return Feb. 8 and 10, 2024, for his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, joining guest conductor Gemma New in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Cho made his Chicago recital debut in 2018 as part of the University of Chicago Presents series. “Cho clearly possesses a world-class technique, polished to a high sheen,” wrote Lawrence A. Johnson in the Chicago Classical Review of that concert. “His arsenal is complete and unassailable, the pianist vaulting through some of the most technically demanding repertoire with guns blazing and nary a slip. Friday’s concert offered about as thrilling a display of sheer powerhouse keyboard bravura as one is ever likely to encounter.”

Like many other children in his native South Korea, where classical music has become popular in recent decades, Cho began taking piano lessons when he was 6. At the time, he said, learning an instrument was “normal and fashionable,” nothing unusual, but what was different was his facility for piano and his dedication to it. “I like playing the piano and listening to music, and I kind of became serious,” he said. He gave his first public recital when he was 11 and became the youngest-ever winner of Japan’s Hamamatsu International Piano Competition four years later.

When he was 18 years old, the pianist moved to France for further studies at the Paris Conservatoire for five years, where he was still a student when won the Chopin Competition. He has remained in Europe since and now resides in Berlin. “I visited for the first time in 2016,” he said of the German capital. “I had two friends here, and I liked the lifestyle here. It was much cheaper than Paris, and the classical scene is so important here. I just liked the vibe.”

Cho regularly performs with many of the world’s top orchestras, and including recent tours with ensembles such as the London Symphony Orchestra and Dresden Staatskapelle. From May 9 through 18, he will embark on a German and Italian tour with the London-based Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, which will not have a conductor for these concerts. “I’m looking forward to it, because we can be more communicative — more like chamber music,” he said. “I think the rehearsal process will be very important.”

Cho’s most recent recording is “The Handel Project,” which was released in February. The celebrated Baroque composer is more typically associated with opera and oratorio than the keyboard, but Handel was a fine harpsichordist and an especially gifted organist. During the pandemic, Cho discovered Handel’s keyboard music via a recording by Sviatoslav Richter and Andrei Gavrilov. “I found it to be very beautiful and interesting and I was surprised that not so many people play that music on modern piano,” he said. “To me, it was very different than Bach. Bach is more intellectual. Handel’s music is from the heart for me and more melodic. So, it was easier to understand and follow than Bach’s music. Of course, I honor and admire Bach’s music but, to be honest, I thought I’m not so ready yet to perform Bach, so I wanted to begin with Handel.” The album includes three Handel Suites, as well as Johannes Brahms’ Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24.

Cho’s May 21 recital draws in part from “The Handel Project,” with its inclusion of the Handel Suite No. 5 in E Major, HWV 430, and Brahms’ Handel Variations. Filling out the program are four other works by Brahms, as well as Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13, and the Chaconne by Sofia Gubaidulina, one of the most world’s most respected living composers. Born in the Soviet Union 91 years ago, she has lived in Hamburg, Germany, since 1992. The Chaconne (1962) was one of her first works to gain a following in the West.

“All the music has some similarities, and there are connections,” Cho said. “Gubaidulina’s Chaconne is totally different from Bach, but it is a Bach form of music and has [a set of] variations and a very clear structure. I thought it would be very nice surprise right after the Handel.” In addition to the Chaconne and Handel Variations, variations are also a key part of the Etudes. “Their relationship is very special,” Cho said of Brahms and Schumann, “so I wanted to include the [four selections from] Brahms’ Klavierstücke [Piano Pieces], Op. 76, as a kind of warm-up to the Symphonic Etudes. And they have a similar atmosphere, which is dark, and something romantic and deep.”

For Cho, assembling a recital program is both challenging and rewarding. “It’s so fun because there is so much repertoire for the piano and endless options. So I think I’m very fortunate, compared to other instrumentalists.”