Debut Recital at Harvard University

George performing on a 1900 Steinway B at Harvard's Faculty Room.

George performing on a 1900 Steinway B at Harvard's Faculty Room.

From the Harvard Office for the Arts Blog. Article by Anita Lo.

Pianist George Ko ’15 knows a lot about the pianos at Harvard. “There are 250 pianos at Harvard, and most were built in the 1950s,” he says. “The one in the Adams Lower Common Room was built in the 1930s. The one in Kirkland, 1912. I played on a piano in the University Hall Faculty Room yesterday that was built in 1900.”

It’s the Faculty Room where Ko will be performing Thursday, February 19 in his Harvard University Debut Recital as part of the Music Department’s University Hall Recital Series.

This is not exactly what Ko expected to be doing in his junior year. “I came into Harvard thinking I was going to be an entrepreneur,” he says. “I was an economics concentrator. My dad had given me my first briefcase when I was 5. I had four start-ups.”

He tells me that though he had played piano for 16 years, he wasn’t too serious about it and practiced only a few hours a week; he spent most of his time in the iLab, a 27-minute walk from Pennypacker, his freshman dorm. “But I was actually really miserable,” he says. “So one day in sophomore year, I was sitting in one of the pews at Sanders listening to the Boston Philharmonicplay Brahms 4th Symphony, and I just knew: I had to be a musician.”

Ko ended up taking a year off – “to see if I could do it” – even spending a few months in Los Angeles learning how to conduct an orchestra. (“Conducting is the most difficult job in the orchestra,” he says. “With just the movement of the baton, you have to communicate to the orchestra the dynamics, beat, tempo, feel. You have to convince them to follow your vision. I realized I could only really work at being good at piano or conducting, so I chose piano.”) An important, if seemingly mundane, achievement during his time off was his shift from practicing two hours a day to three, then six hours a day.

This progression, impressive on its own, becomes more significant when you know Ko’s origins with piano lessons. At age 4, Ko was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed medication. Ko’s mother, seeking an alternative, started him on piano with the idea that it would help him build his focus and calm him down. “My first piano lesson was five minutes long,” Ko says. “My lessons were five minutes long for three years. And I hated piano. I hated classical music.”

Attending concerts weekly and increasing music practice eventually won him over. Along the way, he added saxophone and Chinese flute to his arsenal, as well as guitar, bass, ukulele – “typical college instruments.” At Harvard, he joined the Harvard College Piano Society with a vision for the club to be “not just a social network for pianists, but a place where pianists could thrive. A place that would give pianists here a good foundation to perform. I envisioned something campus-wide, at least.”

It grew much larger than campus-wide. HCPS hosted talks with Yuja Wang and Menahem Pressler at Harvard, performed in joint recitals with Princeton and Boston Universities, traveled to New York to give recitals, and secured a sponsorship from Steinway & M. Steinert of Boston. The transformation was impressive, but Ko, co-president of HCPS, was not finished with piano entrepreneurship at Harvard.

His most recent venture, in conjunction with dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana, is Pianos for the Houses, a project to replace or add pianos in common spaces where serious and amateur musicians could play and listeners could enjoy in a more organic setting.

“You don’t play for yourself if you want to be a concert musician,” says Ko. “Your goal as a performer is to give people a moment in their lives when they feel like they can reflect on anything in their life, so that they can walk away from the performance with some new sentiment. It’s really about the personal connections.”

Tellingly, Ko displays none of the squeamishness that some artists might about business, networking and publicity. He shows the same conviction while explaining how he wrote his own press kit as he shows when emphasizing the necessity of making eye contact with the concertmaster in orchestral productions. He is as insistent about the value of understanding the physics of piano tonality as he is about the importance of solo pianists eating lunch with the orchestra. “They love it, if you show them kindness,” he says. “It’s so important to be kind. The orchestra has its own vision, and unless you get along, yours won’t align.”

His outward-looking philosophy is modeled upon the past. “I think classical musicians fail because they don’t realize that no matter the decade, you have to be an entrepreneur for your career to succeed,” Ko says. “Haydn had a hard time getting people to publish his music, so he and a friend published a small volume themselves. Beethoven had a hard time getting people to play his 9th Symphony, so he organized an orchestra himself. Berlioz himself bought the mutes for the violins in Symphonie Fantastique.” He pauses, nods. “The greatest artists had to do nearly everything themselves, not just with patronage, but with determination to talk to people, to get their craft out there.”

Looking back on all that’s preceded him, Ko believes that being a successful musician requires a lot more than practicing eight hours a day and intense focus. When Ko talks about advice to other student artists, he doesn’t answer as a musician, but a student: “Don’t forget where you came from: Call your mom and dad every week, and hang out with your friends.”

George Ko’s debut recital at Harvard will take place 12:15-1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19 in the Faculty Room of University Hall. The performance is free and open to the public.

PressGeorge Ko