After 11-Year Wait, Pianist’s Dream Comes True
They say the way to get to Carnegie Hall is “practice, practice, practice.” But for Cho Hyun Park, the route has also required patience and perseverance.
The Rancho Bernardo pianist will play in New York’s storied concert hall next year as the grand prize for winning an international music competition in Italy this summer. It was the first contest the 39-year-old Park has entered since setting aside her dream of a concert career 11 years ago to raise three children, now ages 5 to 9.
After earning her doctorate and getting married in 2003, Park walked away from the piano for four years. When she began playing again, she only performed as a teacher and accompanist, juggling private students with the needs of her family. Then in May of last year, she saw Russian pianist Olga Kern play Rachmaninoff’s first concerto with the San Diego Symphony and she felt an ache she hadn’t experienced in more than a decade.
“It was so painful to me,” she said. “I vividly remember going home, pulling the (music) book out and sitting in front of the piano and bursting into tears.”
Park’s remarkable comeback involved nearly a year of practising 10 hours a day “until my fingers were numb” under the training of private tutor George Katz, who said he was deeply impressed by Park’s resolve to compete this past July in the 33rd annual Bartok-Kabalevsky-Prokofiev International Piano Competition in Sicily.
“It takes a tremendous amount of character and perseverance to prepare for a competition with all the family responsibilities and students she had,” Katz said. “I always knew she had a top-notch facility at the keyboard. There isn’t anything she can’t play. But it was a question of thinking about how you can express your individuality within the composer’s intentions that she was able to do extraordinarily well.”
Born and raised in the South Korean city of Busan, Park played piano from a young age. She attended an arts high school and then earned a music degree from the prestigious Seoul National University.
“My teachers inspired me and gave me a lot of good compliments and told me I had talent,” she said. “I wasn’t that gifted but I was above average.”
Her parents couldn’t afford to send her to graduate school, so in 1998 she came alone to the U.S., where she was able to earn a scholarship and do work-study at the University of Texas at Austin. While finishing her doctorate she met her future husband, computer systems specialist Sung Lee, at an Austin church. They married just two months after she graduated and soon moved to San Diego for his new job.
With the move, a husband, a pregnancy and a desire to support her parents in Korea, Park said she didn’t have the focus or time to practice the three to four hours a day required for the competition circuit. And without a contest win on her resume, there would be no way to attract concert offers. So she quit.
“I just gave myself four years off because I was so tired trying to balance everything,” she said. “I was away from the piano for a long time.”
She started playing again seven years ago as an accompanist for high school students and she started offering private piano lessons. But family responsibilities made her desire to play concerts impossible.
“Practising at home was difficult because, when I’d play, the kids would climb on the piano bench and distract me, and I didn’t want to play at night and wake them up. I started thinking of going back to school for something like a pharmacy degree because at least I could study for that quietly.”
Then she saw Kern’s concert last year and decided that with her youngest child in preschool, the time to pursue her dream was now or never. In fact, it was nearly too late.
Most of the world’s piano competitions have an age cut-off of 32 to 34, and the majority of pianists competing are in their late teens and early 20s. With help from Katz — a Juilliard-trained and multiple-award-winning pianist who Park enlisted last fall to get her back in concert shape — she found a competition in Sicily that had no upper age limit. Then she went to work.
“She’s able to respond to deadlines that I would not think she could,” Katz said of Park’s discipline. “She must be tremendously focused when she works because she was bringing in these really challenging pieces to play and she did remarkably well.”
With her husband’s enthusiastic support, Park flew with their kids to Korea for a visit with her parents. From there, she travelled solo to Italy for the 10-day contest, which involved eight public recitals. Park said she felt she played well against the more than 100 other contestants, but she didn’t learn how well until nearly a month later. In mid-August, she got an email from the IBLA Foundation that she’d won the top prize.
“I didn’t really expect to win, but I know I worked really hard and I think that’s why it paid off,” she said, adding that the contest’s multiple public events had an added bonus for her. “I’m introverted and have stage anxiety and low self-esteem, but doing these concerts gave me a lot good experience and confidence.”
According to the IBLA Foundation, Park will perform in 2015 at Carnegie Weill Hall, as well as several other U.S. venues. The dates haven’t been announced, but Park said she’s excited to fulfil her long-time dream of playing in America’s top concert hall.
Although she has accomplished her contest goal, Park said a national concert career is unrealistic. She said her husband and children didn’t get the time they deserved last year when she was training for the contest, teaching 27 students and accompanying 20 recitals. She got the wake-up call this summer when her eldest child, Priscilla, told a family member she was worried how a contest win might affect the family.
“She said that if I won the competition, our lives would be more complicated because I would be busier,” Park said. “So I don’t know about future concerts. It would be nice to travel one more time, but if I can just do a few recitals around here, then that will be pretty good and I can be here for my family.”