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[Herald Interview] From his fingertips, composer and conductor Choi Jae-hyuck brings music to life

By Park Ga-young

Published : Sept. 7, 2023 - 19:34

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Composer and conductor Choi Jae-hyuck (Lotte Concert Hall) Composer and conductor Choi Jae-hyuck (Lotte Concert Hall)

Choi Jae-hyuck, winner of the first prize in composition at the Geneva International Music Competition in 2017, is set to unveil his first organ concerto next month. Choi has been working on the piece since 2020 when he first came up with the idea to create an organ piece, after feeling captivated by the instrument.

"I spent one year redoing the first page several times. After that it got easier," Choi told reporters during an interview on Tuesday. Part of the challenge stems from the availability of the instrument, which is not found conveniently like the piano or violin.

“I had to rely much on my imagination on how my composition sounds like actually on the pipe organ. I still have to check the final result and will make alternations if necessary,” he noted.

When Choi premieres the 12-minute piece titled “Organ Concerto (ensemble version)" on Oct. 12 as part of Maeil Classic, a four-part series that has been running with the theme “Time and space” this year, he will be taking the podium despite there being some downfalls in conducting his own composition.

"When I conduct someone else's compositions, I can faithfully adhere to the score and strive to fully grasp the composer's intentions. However, when conducting my own pieces, I occasionally find myself spontaneously making alterations," Choi said.

Luckily, for the premiere and the night's concert will be accompanied by ensemble blank, which he founded in 2015 with his peers and who have since been delving into contemporary music.

Together, they will showcase the charm of contemporary classical music on Oct. 12 by performing Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” Bela Kovacs’ Hommage a J. S. Bach,” Bernhard Gander’s Soaring Souls and Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Violin Concerto,” Antonio Vivaldi’s “Violoncello Concerto RV. 406 in D minor” and Steve Reich’s “Eight Lines.” For Choi’s Organ Concerto ensemble version, organist Choi Ku-mi will collaborate with ensemble blank.

His journey to become a composer and conductor began when he was playing the violin as part of a youth orchestra at about 13 years old. “While playing the violin, I become curious about two things: who created the music and who the conductor is,” he said. And he started playing with classical music to create his own music by changing slightly a few notes.

Then his music training in composition continued at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, the Juilliard School and the Barenboim-Said Akademie before he won the Geneva International Music Competition in 2017 and made his international debut conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Lucerne Festival in 2018, sharing the stage with Sir Simon Rattle and Duncan Ward for Stockhausen’s Gruppen, stepping in for Matthias Pintscher at the last minute.

Choi Jae-hyuck's music score (Lotte Concert Hall) Choi Jae-hyuck's music score (Lotte Concert Hall)

From his teachers and mentors including Matthias Pintscher, Peter Eotvos, Samuel Adler, Whitman Brown, Chin Unsuk and Park Jung-sun, he learned the importance of imagination.

“My teachers told me that using imagination is important to nurture my internal ear. On the computer, there is a MIDI play button, which I can't resist the temptation to press. But the moment I press it once, the notes I put in the program are played. Then, at some point, the music I imagined gets covered by the MIDI sound. So that's why I like working on paper,” Choi said, adding that he prefers the old-fashioned way of hand-writing each note over entering them on a computer.

“Conducting involves working together with many people, leading and guiding them. Composition, on the other hand, is a solitary process of the imagination. Both are the act of creating sound. A conductor shapes sound, while a composer creates it from scratch,” Choi said, adding that “It's a beautiful thing that sound flows from one's fingertips.”