Pianist Paik to debut with Israel Philharmonic
For the classical pianist, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto is often considered the equivalent of climbing K2 — this is no wonder since the Russian composer, who was riding the peak of his fame at home, composed it in order to woo the American audience.
Paik Kun-woo was 15 and fresh off the boat in New York when he first dabbled with the piece. Maestro Leonard Bernstein heard him practicing it for the 1st Dimitris Mitropoulos Competition, and obviously greatly moved, said this talented young man deserves support. Paik went on to win the Special Prize at the event.
Now almost half-a-century later, he may be recognized as one of the most esteemed artists of his generation — the Eun-Gwan Order of Culture Merit, the second highest cultural honor, that he received Monday is one tangible example. “I’ve always received such warm support in Korea and I am very happy and grateful to be awarded the national medal. But I also feel a greater sense of responsibility,” Paik told reporters the following day in Seoul.
As a musician, fathoming the depth of the concerto remains an ongoing journey, and the pianist will showcase his latest interpretation of the work in his debut with the Zubin Mehta-led Israel Philharmonic Orchestra here next week.
“It will be my first time performing with both the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta. I’ve always wanted to perform with the orchestra, and I have much respect for Mr. Mehta, who is much loved in Korea,” he said. “There is something fathomless about the Rachmaninov Third. There remains so much to be explored no matter how much I play, and I discover new things every time.”
Paik has initiated numerous projects that marked milestones in the Korean classical music scene, from championing complete cycles of works by Scriabin to Liszt to giving a joint concert with emerging young pianists. In particular, he performed all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas in seven days in 2007, which marked a turning point in his career.
“Some artists bloom in their youth while others reach the height of their artistry in middle-age,” said the 64-year-old. “Playing the complete Beethoven sonatas brought about unforeseen changes for me — I can feel it skin-deep, and it becomes crystal clear when I look at scores because I perceive the structure and language in a completely new light.
“I feel closer to music. Before I approached pieces in a sentimental way and wasn’t able to scrutinize the finer points. But now I am more careful and try to find what the music is trying to say.” And so, the journey continues.
What will his next project be? “Strangely nothing is set. I see music in a bigger scheme of things, rather than by composer; after Beethoven, everything seems new.”
As for other future-oriented plans, Paik has provided a platform for rising musicians to shine through joint piano concerts, but he has not gone into fostering students. “I love working with young musicians, but I always had doubts when it came to teaching them myself. I think music is about looking for your unique language and style on your own,” he said.
“In making music, talent may be important but character is also instrumental. Music mirrors everything transparently and reflects no lies.”
Meanwhile, Paik has been busy with more award ceremonies; his wife, actress Yoon Jeong-hie, won the Best Actress prize at the Daejong (Grand Bell) Film Awards last week.
Working with the keyboard may be enervating, he said, but he never grows sick of it. He does however take breaks from practicing to watch movies with Yun.
Paik will appear with the Israel Philharmonic Nov. 13 at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts and Nov. 14 at Seoul Arts Center. In addition to the Rachmaninov Concerto, the repertoire includes Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 “Titan.” Tickets cost 70,000 to 350,000 won. For more information, call 1577-5266.