This is the story of a journey I have witnessed of a prodigy growing into a fully mature artist over a 12-year period. I chose to write this now, because I just heard former Gheens Artist Jinjoo Cho perform as the 2014 Gold Medal Laureate at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (ICVI) just before the finals of the 2018 competition. The picture below shows Jinjoo and me together after her stunning performance last week.
I first learned about Jinjoo from conductor Jason Seber when she was 17 years old. She had won the concerto competition of the Cleveland Institute of Music as a high school student in which her competition included college, graduate, and even Doctoral music performance majors. Following up on this lead, I called her teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Paul Kantor, and told him that I wanted to talk with him about the possibility of engaging Jinjoo to perform at The Kentucky Center’s Gheens Great Expectations series. I could hear the excitement in his voice as he said to me, “Boy have you found yourself a violinist!” Indeed, I had. Later that year she went on to win the Gold Medal at the Montreal International Violin Competition.
We arranged for Jinjoo to give a recital and a community residency. The next fall I recognized her in the audience at the finals of the IVCI and introduced myself, saying that we are excited about her upcoming performance and residency in Louisville. And with a delightfully informal spunk, she looked right into my eyes and asked me, “is it Loueyville, or Louissville, or Louavull? Which one is it?” Over the years I came to expect this kind of playfulness from Jinjoo which you can also hear in her playing.
Jinjoo’s first recital in Louisville at The Kentucky Center’s Bomhard Theatre received a rave review from the Courier-Journal’s Andrew Adler including the following quote: “I think I’m going to start referring to Jinjoo Cho as the ‘it’ girl of this season’s classical recital scene. ‘It’ as in pay attention to her every gesture, her every note. Because she has lots of what may be called the ‘wow’ factor.” He later went on to include this performance as one of his top ten concerts of the decade.
In her residencies in schools and in the community, Jinjoo has proven to be a natural at connecting with and inspiring young people. I will never forget when she played the first violin part in the Mendelssohn Octet with seven string students at the Youth Performing Arts School. After being introduced to the group – most of whom were just a few years younger than her – she jumped right into rehearsal with energy, enthusiasm and immediately helped raise the ensemble’s level of playing.
The outreach opportunities in the Gheens Great Expectations program have helped to broaden Jinjoo’s understanding of the power and importance of education and outreach. And this has helped shape her trajectory as an artist, teacher, and entrepreneur. A couple of years ago she made her vision of reviving the Encore Chamber Music festival and school a reality, bringing high level musical training to hundreds of very gifted young artists.
How did Jinjoo Cho become the only three-time Gheens Artist? In 2013, Glen Kwok, the Executive Director of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (IVCI), met with me for coffee while he was in Louisville for a conference. He proposed a discount artist fee if we would agree to engage the 2014 Gold Medalist as a Gheens Artist in 2014 – without knowing who it would be in advance. Jinjoo won the Gold Medal and returned to Louisville a third time, performing in the Gheens Great Expectations concert and performing at WUOL’s Lunchtime Classics as well as working with violinists in The Kentucky Center’s ArtsReach Violin Studio (see photo below).
In the WUOL performance, which you can listen to online, I had the honor of performing the Mozart Sonata in E minor with her, and it was one of the finest chamber music collaborations of my career as a pianist. In performance we responded to the slightest suggestions in each other’s playing resulting in interpretive choices we did not practice or discuss in our rehearsal. After the performance we both spoke about how this brought a freshness and spontaneity to our collaboration.
Nearly four years later, sitting in the audience at the IVCI Donor Appreciation Recital reserved for the previous Gold Medalist, I marveled at Jinjoo’s performance. You can see and hear her performance online. She has grown from a young phenom, playing with a level of mastery and musical sophistication well beyond her years, to a fully mature artist of the highest level. Her program of works by Britten, Previn, Chausson, and Faure were very challenging to play and not the kind of program that most violinists would choose. But here she was, no longer restricted by the choices offered by a competition and playing what she wanted to share – and it was magnificent. She had a wonderful partner in pianist Hyun Soo Kim, who played with joy, a superb ear for ensemble, and a great variety of pianistic touches. Jinjoo’s playing was big and also intimate, very personal and without a hint of excess even when taking us to the edge with her bold interpretations.
After such a difficult program, Jinjoo returned to the stage with her pianist for one encore. She announced to the audience her gratitude to the IVCI competition, one of the most important competitions in the world and one she dreamed of competing in since she was fourteen. She then played an arrangement of “Over the Rainbow” as if to say that sometimes dreams really do come true.
With generous support from the Gheens Foundation, The Kentucky Center has discovered, presented, and help to nurture the artistic and career growth of dozens of Gheens Artists since 2004.