This pianist has a lot to learn (and so does his label)

This pianist has a lot to learn (and so does his label)


norman lebrecht

January 06, 2017

Seong-Jin Cho, winner of the Chopin Competition, is a fabulous artist with a brilliant future. But he should never be allowed to talk to camera until he acquires a pull-on charisma set from his local makeover shop.

Which DG genius thought this chat was going to help sell records?


  • Myrtar says:

    Is it worth trying to watch more than the first minute? I can hardly understand him or his line of thought.

    • me! says:

      He speaks perfectly fine, although the volume could have been higher on the recording – volume was the problem. He speaks knowledgeably and it was nice to get a sense of the artist. I was positively impressed, absolutely. A fake, media-contrived mask is NOT what artists should do or strive for, unless they are naturally affected or wildly extrovert imo. I learned something as well, so job well done!

      • Myrtar says:

        I wasn’t asking for him to be like Lang Lang, God forbid. But it looks like they sat him down before thinking what they were going to talk about, he was often fishing for words or where to go next. The video could have been cut in half if they had done their homework.

        • me! says:

          I don’t know, to me it seemed that he was talking about the ballade and went from its beginning, through its middle to its end, which, considering he recorded the ballade, seems reasonable enough. He played snippets to show us what he was talking about (it is dramatic here, I find it x there…). It was pretty straightforward to me, but you wrote you only listened to the first few moments… I for one enjoy Lang Lang too and find him charming. There is room for many personalities and styles and these are very gifted artists. Why be so harsh and criticize an artist’s personality and presentation? They hopefully are not there for their personalities but their substantive gifts in their medium.

  • David Osborne says:

    Charming if a little shy, natural, unaffected, expressive, great player and comes across as a really nice guy. What is wrong with you Norman?

    • Dirk Fischer says:

      I think you described perfectly all the objections Norman has.

      • Max Grimm says:

        Indeed and I’m willing to bet that if Seong-Jin Cho heeded Norman’s advice and “acquires a pull-on charisma set from his local makeover shop”, it wouldn’t take a day before we’d see Norman climbing atop The Shard to decry him as an unbearably flamboyant, Korean Lang Lang.

  • ED says:

    Condescending much? Some might find it refreshing that he hasn’t been to a Norman-approved finishing school..

  • Patrick says:

    Oh, it’s not so bad at all. Sure, the words don’t flow easily, but one can follow his thoughts with no problem. They provide insight into this particular artist. Not everyone can be Lenny…

  • Caroline Brown says:

    Patience really is a virtue! Finally one hears from a great artist an in depth analysis of the Ballade. His intense musicianship is oozing out of him. Please give him a chance! If you actually listen to the end, it is very informative.

  • Minutewaltz says:

    He seems fine. I think he came over well especially as English isn’t his first language.
    I particularly enjoy his performance of December from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Seasons’.

    • Nick says:

      It’s not even his second language as it seems from his bio that he lives in Paris. A clip with his speaking in Korean with subtitles might have been more appropriate, but I have no problem with his English nor personality. The criticism is too harsh, although I agree in itself the vdo is not likely to sell many records these days!

      • David Osborne says:

        I disagree Nick, it’s sold one to me. Helped along the way by Norman’s free publicity push. The conspiracy theorists should be here any minute now…

  • Dan says:

    I find it rather endearing, and informative.

  • Alan Kay says:

    Lebrecht is too harsh. There is a humility and honesty in this young man which is so refreshing, especially when compared to the antics of a showoff like Lang Lang, for example, who, though undeniably hugely talented, seems no longer to have any sensitivity to a great work’s structure or meaning whatsoever, grotesquely distorting subtlety in the name of showmanship. Cho’s comments are understated, possibly in part because he is less comfortable with English than some, but nevertheless come from a place of extensive study, understanding and probably awe. So, accept this refreshing instance of decency in a hype-filled, desperate-for-attention classical music world. I wish more people would appreciate great music for what it is.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Why do artists have to talk to the camera when the best they have to say is through their art? I wonder what would have happened to young Vladimir Horowitz’ career if he were judged by those standards.

    • qais alawqati says:

      I thik that this is actually a great ad for Cho; I am sure that NL intended it as such. It is a terrific video showing a sweet young man trying to explain how a great piece of music actually is ocnstruced

    • Sue says:


      And South Korea; what a wonderful country punching way, way above its weight!!!

  • Soojin Ahn says:

    Completely agree with Alan Kay. There aren’t many artists of his caliber who are not image conscious. He is all about music and nothing else, which is like a breath of fresh air. I think this will actually help him sell more discs, because he is not trying to sell records. His answers are always thoughtful and enlightening in it’s simplicity and honesty.

  • MacroV says:

    He’s no Sir Simon, but I’m actually quite impressed with him. We should all do so well shooting a video in our second (third?) language. He’s soft-spoken and low-key, which makes him look sincere (and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made). I have more criticism of the director, who is shooting him from Camera 2 when he’s looking at Camera 1, with the sound dropping out for a few moments at one point.


      Yes, the best thing Cho and his label can do before making any further promo videos is to dump this amateurish director. First he/she shines a great big lamp into our eyes from the back – the last thing we would accept in real life because it would burn its image onto our retinas. It’s also distracting because Cho’s movements keep occluding it then revealing it.

      But then this director is a master of distraction. Camera 2 shows Cho in profile, speaking to Camera 1 but not to us (a fashionable tick that needs stamping out; it self-consciously draws attention to the mechanics of television). It’s good to see his face occasionally but not when we’re longing to see what his hands are doing. At 6’30” Cho sets up how difficult that section of music is to play. But the director has only hired two cameras and stuck one of them where it can’t see the keyboard. So we never get a close-up of Cho’s hands. They haven’t been shot as a re-take afterwards and edited in — the standard way of solving the problem when you’re short of a camera.

      Cho’s manner is quietly serious but what he has to say, in a limited time, is intelligent and revealing. If you want fireworks go to one of the many piano tutorials on YouTube and meet breezy, high-spirited American tutors talking very fast and dashing off scales and arpeggios.

  • RW2013 says:

    Instead of wasting minutes trying to explain the opening, why couldn’t he just say that it starts with a Neapolitan sixth (which we hear again in the coda)?
    No “DG genius” that could have smuggled this highly technical term into the film?
    This time I’m with Norman.

    • Henry says:

      I don’t care about your knowledge of music theory.
      Neopolitan Sixth…so what?
      You cannot play like Seong-Jin anyway.

    • David Osborne says:

      Thank you RW for touching on this incredibly important issue. ‘Neapolitan 6th’ is useless after the event analysis that turns a moment of inspired musical creation into a maths equation. If you are under the impression that Chopin thought, as he sat down to compose this Ballade “hmm, I might start off here with a neapolitan 6th” then at a visceral level you misunderstand the creative process. Not only do Cho’s evocative words describe this magical musical moment perfectly, but they also don’t exclude the 99.999999999999% of potential music lovers on the planet who happen not to know what a neapolitan 6th is. There you have it: all that is wrong with classical music education in a nutshell.

    • Jaybuyer says:

      A Neapolitan 6th? Is that just one cornetto?

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    The video presents the pianist as an utterly dedicated, serious and sensitive guy. Moreover his shyness contrasts with the very self-confident playing. That makes him more interesting as an artist.
    And that may just as well serve DG, in order to convey that he is not the next Lang Lang. They already have to market Yuja Wang and Yundi Li as Chinese artists against Lang Lang, of whom notably Wang is quite extrovert, so there is a niche for another virtuoso from the Far East with a different profile.
    At home Cho is a star, so maybe his shines in the video makes him even more sympathetic in his homeland.

  • Sue says:

    I watched the Chopin Competition streamed live and was enthralled, totally. I was hugely impressed with Cho and his eloquent winning speech moved me a lot.

    He’s a beautiful young man with extraordinary talent. What’s not to love?

  • Henry says:

    I don’t even understand why you posted this…nothings seems wrong. I think you are the one who is not helping him to sell his records.

  • Clara Jeong says:

    I don’t know why DG try to make this clip and post for public.
    but classic music can’t be judged by anyone, therefore so does artists.
    his sincere effort that tried to explain about this marvelous piece of chopin for make people understand much more better, was worked. that’s enough valuable.
    even though he doesn’t had “a pull-on charisma set from his local makeover shop.”
    but also had sincere passion of the classic music.
    what’s the wrong with you, “sir norman” ?
    I think you don’t evaluating about quailty of classic music ifself,
    which you really should care about.

  • Dooly Sato says:

    Damn, that’s harsh, Uncle Norm.

    FYI his native language is Korean, and his second language is French. He’s been speaking English since 4 years ago, as he started his study in Europe, studying at Paris Conservatory, and I know he’s quite fluent in other languages, like German and Japanese. I think he’s fluent in English for someone who’s been speaking it for 4 years. I can understand him fine, why can’t you? Unless you have some kind of hearing problems, his English should not even matter. He’s a pianist and his job is to play piano, not someone who should speak perfect English. There are many musicians who are not from English-speaking countries and most are doing fine in their crafts despite their thick heavy accents.

    For you to call him out on his awkward?(although I can understand him fine, so it really must be you, not me) English skills reminds me of those people in the US expressing that you should learn to speak English when you come here. But you Uncle Norm took a step further by complaining from your extra deep, cushiony couch with your usual beer mug in hand and your beer belly protruding from your tight shirt that he should speak perfect English. Realllllllllllllly?

    BTW despite the commotion you involuntarily caused, I personally think Cho should have spoken velvety smooth, throat caressing French just to keep everyone’s ears mellowed and satisfied.

    Until then, let’s just
    Keep Calm and Be Rational..

  • Alvaro says:

    Anybody that has spoken with an asian in english can perfectly understand this clip.

    The xenophobia and overt racism of some knows no bounds. At least the man can actually utter words in another language.

    Maybe certain blogs ought to bear a logo:


  • young says:

    I’ve got to know why classical music is “dying” in the European markets.

    The only thing they care about is a media-contrived image, not genuine talent.

  • DG Skeptic says:

    Not sure “DG” and “Genius” belong in the same sentence. Everyone has been watching the brilliant yellow label of Karajan, Anne-Sophie Mutter et al plummet to embarrassing lows over the last years, with signings based more on glossy photos than artistic credibility.

    Some good ones, like Seong-Jin, do sneak in the doors of DG, though rather than focusing on his extraordinary musical abilities, DG applies the same marketing formula that they do to all of their other artists regardless of whether that was the right choice for him. He is obviously not comfortable in front of the camera and DG simply lacks the creativity to come up with any other way to spotlight his artistry than this silly interview.

  • Olivier Keegel says:

    Nice fellow, great piano player. The only thing that bothers me is the direction of the clip. Is it so difficult to let him look into the right camera?


      Yes it’s difficult when you have an incompetent camera director (see my reply above to Macrov). It’s not Cho’s fault.

  • anon says:

    Might as well add, since Norman distracted us from the real issue:

    That is some very FINE Chopin playing!

    For once, the (accidental?) mismatch between recorded volume of and piano works wonders here. The piano playing really grabs your attention, and Cho brings such a well defined, vintage sound. FWIW, I watched this video with a 17-month old child, and he was into it.

  • May says:

    Norman is right. Seong-Jin Cho doesn’t speak English well enough to put him before a camera. Have him speak his native language and provide subtitles. Problem solved.

    • Max Grimm says:

      How can Norman be right about a point he never made?
      Contrary to a fair few commenters who focused on Cho’s English in one way or another, Norman’s main issue was not so much about language use, as it was about Cho’s personality (or according to life-of-the-party Norman, lack thereof), suggesting that Cho “never be allowed to talk to camera until he acquires a pull-on charisma set from his local makeover shop.”
      Charisma isn’t dependent on ones mastery of the English language and I have come across charismatic people, with whom I’ve had to communicate using gestures as neither of us spoke a common language.
      Personally, I find David Osborne’s first comment and Dirk Fischer’s response to be spot on in this case.

  • EricB says:

    Well, it actually made me want to buy his Ballads album….

  • Tweettweet says:

    What an artist! That’s the only conclusion I draw from this clip.

  • Paul Cho says:

    Can we listen to what he says from his heart in the music rather than criticizing what comes out of his mouth? We all know that “when words fail, music speaks.”.

  • Novagerio says:

    If this is a “major problem”, then you should hear Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli speak…

  • Dooly Sato says:


    Let’s work up to 60!

  • Frankie says:

    I suspect that ‘our Norm’ is chuckling in his sleeve at all of this mis-placed ire! Isn’t this one of his celebrated sideways comments? The swipe is at the stupidity of DG who think that they have to make artists jump thro’ corporate hoops and display ‘pull-on charisma’ to sell records rather than just being ‘a fabulous artist with a brilliant future’!