Friday, 23 October 2009

A Few Words With JINSANG LEE, 1st Prizewinner of the Hong Kong International Piano Competition 2008


When meeting Jinsang Lee, the Korean pianist who was the winner of the Hong Kong International Piano Competition 2008, one is immediately struck by his youthful appearance. Although he is 28, he looks no more than a teenager fresh out of high school. Sporting a stud on his left ear, he is already a veteran of many international piano competitions, the latest scalp being the Geza Anda International Piano Competition in Zurich, Switzerland in the most recent summer.
Jinsang with his mother & sister in Hong Kong.

Growing up in Korea

Jinsang was born in Seoul in 1981, where his father was an architect and mother a professional table-tennis player and coach. He began piano lessons at the age of seven, after he was found imitating the tunes his elder sister Jin Ah was already playing. Both siblings were then brought to audition for a local piano teacher. Jinsang was accepted but his sister was not. Jin Ah, who was two years older, later became a Chinese language teacher. Jinsang remembered his years in Middle School being very unexceptional. “I was a very mediocre student”, he admitted.

All this changed when he came under the wing of well-known teacher Kim Daejin (left), a former winner of the Cleveland International Piano Competition, who tutored him for nine years from high school through to the Korean National University of the Arts. He was a very demanding teacher who made students cry. Under Kim, he developed a great love for the music of Frederic Chopin, besides being well schooled in the classics and Romantics. “The music I love to play now date from Mozart to Brahms,” he added.

Studies in Germany

After graduation, Jinsang pursued postgraduate studies in Germany, first in Nuremberg under Wolfgang Manz and Julia Goldstein, and later in Cologne under Pavel Gililov (left). Jinsang describes Gililov, the Russian pianist who has partnered Mischa Maisky and Dmitri Sitkovetsky on CD, as “very gentle and inspiring”. Once Jinsang played a work for him in a very mechanical manner, and Gililov paused and without raising his voice said, “I know that you are a very warm and musical person, so let’s hear that from you.” Immediately Jinsang started playing much better.

The Hochschule in Cologne where Jinsang now studies was founded in 1850 by one Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885), and that was the basis of his recent recital Chopin, Mendelssohn and Hiller: Making Music Among Friends and recordings, which juxtaposed the piano music of three pianist-composer friends. It was this inspired idea of Dr Andrew Freris, President of The Chopin Society of Hong Kong, which led Jinsang into the library and archives of the conservatory for study and research. His recording, CD and DVD of the “live” performance on 13 October will be issued on the Alpha Omega Sound label in 2010.

International Piano Competitions

The first international competition where Jinsang made his mark was in Sendai, Japan in 2001. He won second prize in the concerto competition performing Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, and was almost overawed by the company he was in. “Giuseppe Andaloro won the 1st prize, and Yuja Wang the 3rd prize. The other finalists included Roberto Plano and Amir Tebenikhin,” he beamed, “They’re all big names in the piano world now!”
Jinsang is almost shocked to learn
he's been named 1st prizewinner
in Hong Kong (October 2008).

After winning in Cologne, the 2008 Hong Kong International Piano Competition landed on his plate. A very demanding 2nd round saw him performing set pieces by Shostakovich, Sibelius and Albeniz, together with Beethoven’s Sonata Op.110 and Chopin’s Ballade No.4. In the finals, he performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17 (K.453) and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No.2 with hardly a break in between, winning him the coveted 1st prize. When Vladimir Ashkenazy indicated that the standard of the competition had risen, he was most likely referring to Jinsang’s performances. Part of the prize was a concert under Ashkenazy’s baton in Shanghai a few days later.

At the Geza Anda International Piano Comeptition, he was the audience favourite from the outset, and won several special prizes (Audience Prize & Schumann Prize) and the 1st prize playing Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1. His younger compatriot Sunwook Kim (left) had won the Leeds playing the same concerto, and Jinsang was humble enough to seek his counsel. “Do not fight with the orchestra, but be one with them, as if you were part of a symphony,” was his advice. Although Jinsang played some wrong notes in the first movement, no one seemed to care too much. Musical expression rather than note-for-note perfection had won the day.

New repertoire and the future

Although Romantic music figures most in Jinsang’s concerts, he hopes to widen his repertoire. Albeniz’s Iberia (of which Triana, a compulsory piece in Hong Kong, is one of 12 pieces) is one of his targets, and the music of 20th century Korean composer Isang Yun (left). “Yun was born in what is North Korea today. He became very famous in Germany and the West, but was hardly known in his native Korea. He tried for many years to return to North Korea, but was denied by the authorities. When they finally granted him permission, he had unfortunately died,” Jinsang explained. Jinsang also hope to programme an entire recital on the theme of Nostalgia, about people living away from their homeland and how that affects their lives.

While regularly returning to his homeland, Jinsang hopes to continue living and performing in Europe. Given his exposure following the competitions and the great eloquence with which his music speaks to his audience, is likely to have a successful career ahead of him.

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