The King of Instruments

Unsuk Chin and her love for the piano

Unsuk Chin (Photo: Boosey & Hawkes/ Priska Ketterer)

If Unsuk Chin had to describe her Piano Concerto in three words, they would be "virtuosity, colors and vitality". Three words that describe one thing above all: the playful side of the instrument and her great personal passion for the piano. On June 5, 2021, Sunwook Kim will present the piece with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the baton of Sakari Oramo. We asked the composer how her works are created and why she sometimes feels like hiding in a mouse hole.

What fascinates you about the piano and what possibilities does the instrument offer you as a composer?

The piano is the only instrument that has fascinated me since childhood. I wanted to be a pianist, but I couldn't, so I became a composer – that was my second choice. The instrument itself, the sound, and especially the relationship between my body and the instrument, that is what has fascinated me for more than 50 years. There is just such an incredibly wonderful repertoire that has been written for this instrument. The piano is for me the king of instruments.

Live concert on 5 June 2021

Experience Unsuk Chin’s Piano Concerto and Jean Sibelius’s Second Symphony under the baton of Sakari Oramo with the Berliner Philharmoniker and Sunwook Kim live on 5 June 2021 at 19.00 in the Philharmonie Berlin.

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You once said in an interview, “the first rehearsal is for me the most terrifying moment of the composition process”. Why do you feel that way?

This is usually the case with the premiere, that is, when I haven’t yet heard the piece. I only compose at a table with a piece of paper. I don’t try out a single note on the piano, the music exists only in my head and in the form of a score. I hear the pieces for the first time at the first rehearsal. They musicians are prepared, of course, but they are still not quite together, the details are not that clear yet. To hear the music like that, in a not so perfect form and different from what you had in your head – when that radically becomes reality in the form of sound, it is quite daunting. As a composer, I am very self-critical, and every time I would love to find a hole somewhere and hide.

When Sunwook Kim performs your Piano Concerto, he is already very familiar with it. Why is he such a good fit for this piece as a soloist?

He first performed the work eight years ago. Until then, he had mostly only played standard repertoire. Personally, I prefer musicians who don't just play new music.
The piano concerto is a rather traditional work - although it is stylistically quite new, but you don't have to break anything or do anything unusual. You really have to play the piano, and the performer really has to be someone who can play the piano.

How does it feel for you to know that the piece is finally being performed in front of a live audience again?

As a composer, every concert you have with the Berliner Philharmoniker is something you very much look forward to. For all of us, the last year has been very hard. An incredible deprivation, not only of social contact, but also of cultural activities. You can only hope that the whole thing will get going again. This concert will be the first event after this break, and it will be with my own work, which I personally have a very special relationship with, so that’s incredible. I think it’s great and I’m really looking forward to it.

You have been working closely with the Berliner Philharmoniker for a long time – what does this collaboration mean to you?

The collaboration between composers and the Berliner Philharmoniker is the absolute crowning glory. With a full hall in the Philharmonie, with these wonderful musicians and wonderful conductors, a piece gains an extra quality it didn’t have before. And that is why I hope that this cooperation will continue in the future.

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