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Korea's rising stars of classical music

This year saw worldwide accolades of unprecedented proportions for classical music artists from Korea.

From the first Koreans to win the top prizes at the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition and Queen Elisabeth Music Competition, to the first Asian to take home the crown at the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition, 2015 has cast a light on local classical scene talent like never before.

Cho Seong-jin

As the newest classical music icon in Korea, Cho Seong-jin has forever cemented his status as one of the nation’s most revered musicians by not only becoming the first Korean pianist in a decade to make the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition’s Top 10, but also going on to become the first Korean to win the top prize.

Last month at the Chopin piano competition in Poland, the world’s most elite piano competition, the 21-year-old piano prodigy outshined 77 other young pianists from 20 countries. Cho clinched his title playing a brilliant performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor, Op. 11 in the competition’s final round alongside the Warsaw Philharmonic. 

Pianist Cho Seong-jin (International Chopin Piano Competition)
Pianist Cho Seong-jin (International Chopin Piano Competition)
Winning the prestigious competition is widely considered to be a guaranteed international career launch pad. And even before the release of the young pianist’s first solo album, Cho has already become a rock star in Korea. 

Following his win, the album containing Cho’s award-winning performance sold all 50,000 printed copies in less than a week -- an unprecedented feat that no other classical musician has come even close to achieving. 

The album was released in Korea on Nov. 6 and the first batch of 30,000 copies sold out in one weekend, while another 20,000 copies were sold in four days, prompting Universal Music to produce another 50,000 copies.

A Universal Music official projected a total of 100,000 copies will be sold by early next year.

In Korea, it is extremely rare for a classical music album to sell more than 10,000 copies, which would already earn platinum status in the genre. The album was the top seller across all music genres at Kyobo Bookstore, the country’s largest book retailer -- another unheard-of achievement by a classical musician.

Cho is slated to perform at Seoul Arts Center in February along with other winners of the Chopin competition.

Mun Ji-yeong

Looking to echo Cho’s international success is up-and-coming local pianist Mun Ji-yeong.

At age 19, Mun became not only the first Korean, but also the first Asian, to win the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition in Italy this past September.

Pianist Mun Ji-yeong (Geneva International Music Competition)
Pianist Mun Ji-yeong (Geneva International Music Competition)
This year also marked the first time the competition awarded a first-place prize in six years. Mun’s performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Minor during the final round of the competition earned her a prominent spot in the competition’s history books.

Last year, the young pianist also won the highest prize of the Geneva International Music Competition, along with the Audience Prize. Mun beat out 172 pianists from 22 countries to take home the crown at one of the classical music world’s most prestigious piano competitions for young musicians.

Born in 1995 in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, Mun did not grow up in a house of privilege and, for several years, never had a piano of her own. Mun began learning the piano at age 5, but because her family could not afford to buy her one, she is said to have practiced playing on a paper piano she drew as a young child, as well as practicing either at school or a neighborhood church.

From paper pianos to renowned international accolades, Mun’s humble beginnings and unwavering passion is already leading her down the path to become one of the country’s most prominent young artists.

Lim Ji-young

Continuing the country’s epic classical music competition feats this year is young violinist Lim Ji-young.

In May, 20-year-old Lim became the first Korean violinist ever to win the highest honor at the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Music Competition in Belgium, performing her interpretation of Brahms’ Concerto in D, op. 77.

Violinist Lim Ji-young (Queen Elisabeth Music Competition)
Violinist Lim Ji-young (Queen Elisabeth Music Competition)
One of the classical world’s big three music competitions, this year’s Queen Elisabeth contest for violin featured 69 players of 20 nationalities, including 17 violinists from Korea.

As the grand prize winner, Lim was not only entitled to a cash prize of 25,000 euros ($26,600), but was also granted a four-year loan of the “Huggins” Stradivarius violin, which was created in 1708 by the master craftsman himself, Antonio Stradivari.

A Korea National University of Arts student, Lim’s continued international success comes as a somewhat unexpected surprise as the young violinist has received no overseas training -- a rare accomplishment as many of the country’s most noted local musicians were trained abroad.

The win comes after a series of international accolades for the up-and-coming locally trained prodigy after winning the top prize at the Euroasia International Competition in Japan and the MIMC Prize at the Montreal International Musical Competition in 2013. 

Last year, she was also a laureate of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, winning the Mozart special prize.

By Julie Jackson (