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Classical Journey to Excellence

Young classical musicians from Korea have clinched top awards at prestigious music competitions around the world this year, gaining footholds for their future career.


Kim Su-yeon won first prize in piano at this year’s Montreal International Music Competition, the first for a Korean pianist.
© Denise Tamara, Courtesy of Kumho Cultural Foundation

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed or canceled international classical music competitions in 2020, but the contests have resumed this year, with young Koreans once again breaking through ceilings and finishing first in various categories.

These winners include pianist Kim Su-yeon, who excelled at the Montreal International Music Competition; cellist Han Jae-min and pianist Park Yeon-min at the George Enescu International Competition in Bucharest, Romania; and pianist Lee Dong-ha and the Arete String Quartet at the Prague Spring International Music Competition.

Meanwhile, baritone Kim Gi-hoon won the main prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, which is regarded as the world’s most authoritative vocal competition. A Korean has won its song prize in the past, but Kim is the first to be awarded the main prize.

Early education and fierce competition are the main explanations for the exceptional performance of Korean musicians in international competitions. With the exclusion of singing, the primary aim in musical disciplines is to identify and nurture talent from a young age. To that end, a continuous effort is exerted to groom future generations.

Korea National Institute for the Gifted in Arts, affiliated with Korea National University of Arts, offers courses for young musical prodigies. Students from third grade and up can apply for intensely contested admissions. But to stay enrolled is another challenge entirely; students must pass annual auditions. In general, those selected based on latent talent and potential rather than skill turn out to be more successful.

Compared to the past, channels for entering international competitions have also expanded, thus providing greater opportunities for young musicians to prove their talent.

Kim Su-yeon
The Montreal International Music Competition is dedicated to discovering and supporting young talent under the age of 33. Korean musicians have garnered awards in the competition’s violin and voice categories several times. But this year, Kim Su-yeon, 27, was the first to win in piano. The prize is worth 180,000 Canadian dollars in total value, including a cash prize of 30,000 Canadian dollars, a tour of three North American cities and an album release on the Steinway & Sons label.

The Montreal contest was held virtually via video recordings. Kim’s repertoire included three pieces of her choice – Beethoven’s Sonata No. 30 in E major, Op. 109; Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp minor, Op. 19; and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, M. 55 – as well as three of the “Twenty-Four Preludes” by Canadian composer John Burge, which were compulsory.

Kim, who lives in Salzburg, Austria, also reached the semi-finals of the Queen Elisabeth Competition held in Brussels, Belgium. It nearly overlapped with the Montreal competition and also required a video recording.

“Since I wasn’t playing in front of an audience, I was less nervous. But playing in front of the camera and recorder still gave me the jitters,” Kim recalled. She said she felt like an actress having to act in front of a wall, pouring out her emotions to it as if it were a fellow actor.

Kim has received critical acclaim for having “a remarkably sophisticated technique with incredibly detailed articulation and miniature values.” She nurtured her musical talent and imagination, learning an extensive repertoire at the Korea National Institute for the Gifted in Arts and earned her master’s and doctorate degrees at Mozarteum University Salzburg, where she is currently continuing her studies in the advanced program.


The Montreal contest was held virtually via video recordings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kim’s final repertoire included pieces by Beethoven, Scriabin, Ravel and Canadian composer John Burge. This is a screen capture of YouTube footage of the competition.

Han Jae-min, Park Yeon-min
The George Enescu International Competition is part of a larger festival honoring the Romanian composer and violinist. Held biennially, it is one of the biggest music festivals in Eastern Europe. Adding himself this year to the list of previous Korean winners, Han Jae-min became the youngest winner in the competition’s 53-year history. The 14-year-old cellist competed for the first time against noticeably older contenders. He received a cash prize of 15,000 euros and invitations to future music events, including the 2022 George Enescu Festival.

“I thought it would be a great experience and also a chance to get an objective assessment of my ability,” said Han. Unlike other participants who had their own piano accompanist, Han played with a Romanian pianist who had been assigned to him by the organizer. This afforded him a deeper understanding of the Romanian sentiment, and hence worked to his advantage in his semi-final rendition of George Enescu’s Cello Sonata No. 2 in C major, Op. 26.

Born into a family of musicians, Han started playing piano and violin at the age of five before taking up the cello, fascinated by its deep, resonant sound. After finishing eighth grade, he entered Korea National University of Arts, becoming the youngest student ever to be accepted.

Park Yeon-min won the first prize in the piano section of the same competition. She earned her bachelor’s degree at Seoul National University’s College of Music and her master’s at Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media in Germany, where she is currently enrolled in the advanced program.

Park was among the 14 semi-finalists in the 2020 International Franz Liszt Piano Competition, but it was canceled due to the pandemic. Nonetheless, she buckled down to prepare for the George Enescu competition, for which she chose the notoriously difficult piece, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30. Her performance, marked by overwhelming power and fervor, won her the top accolade.


Cellist Han Jae-min performs at the 2020 George Enescu International Competition, held in May this year in Bucharest, Romania. The 14-year-old won first prize in the cello section. He was the youngest ever winner and participant since the competition’s inception in 1958.
© Andrei Gindac, George Enescu International Competition


Pianist Park Yeon-min won first prize for her performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30 at the 2020 George Enescu International Competition, held in Bucharest, Romania. Park debuted at the Kumho Young Artists Concert in 2014.
© Andrei Gindac, George Enescu International Competition

Early education and fierce competition are the main explanations for the exceptional performance of Korean musicians in international competitions.

Lee Dong-ha, Arete String Quartet
Pianist Lee Dong-ha, 27, won the Prague Spring International Music Competition in May despite a lack of experience abroad; the contest was his first international competition. He chose some of his favorite pieces for his performance, but since they were pieces that many pianists also enjoy playing, he worked hard to bring his own individual interpretation to the stage.

Lee said that there were difficulties due to the competition being moved up a month, but that it was a meaningful experience in that he was able to receive objective and detailed feedback about his performance from the judges. The Prague competition, established in 1946, is for musicians who are under 30 years old.

After graduating from Yonsei University, Lee earned his master’s degree from Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media and is currently studying for his doctorate at Münster School of Music.

The Prague competition’s string quartet section was held this year for the first time in 16 years, with the Arete String Quartet winning five special prizes in addition to the top prize. The quartet included Beethoven’s compositions in its performance.

Formed in September 2019, the Arete String Quartet consists of violinists Jeon Chae-ann and Kim Dong-hwi, violist Jang Yoon-sun and cellist Park Seong-hyeon. Their debut performance at the Kumho Young Chamber Concert in 2020 was broadcast live on KBS Classic FM, an unprecedented achievement for unknown musicians. They are now receiving recognition as rising stars following in the footsteps of the Novus String Quartet and Esmé Quartet.


Pianist Lee Dong-ha performs at the 2021 Prague Spring International Music Competition, his first international contest. He said that more meaningful than winning first prize was the feedback and advice he received from the distinguished judges.
© Petra Hajská, Prague Spring International Music Competition


The Arete String Quartet, which was only formed in 2019, is also on the fast track. The group won first prize in the string quartet section of the 2021 Prague Spring International Music Competition, in addition to five special prizes.
© Petra Hajská, Prague Spring International Music Competition

Ryu Tae-hyung Music Columnist


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