CHICAGO — A Northwestern University student and his half-million-dollar cello are headed to Russia next month to compete in the International Tchaikovsky Competition, an elite contest that can launch careers.

Brannon Cho, a sophomore, is one of three Americans among the 51 cellists invited to compete. His parents sold their house, in part to help pay for his cello — an example of the kind of support Cho credits for making it this far.

If not a pinnacle, the contest represents at least a lofty ridge line in the musical journey of the young New Jersey man and a testament to his relationship with longtime teacher Hans Jorgen Jensen, a professor at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music.

With a grand prize of $100,000, in addition to other monetary awards, the competition also brings a tremendous amount of pressure.

In a recent interview, Cho sounded confident, thoughtful and maybe a little sleepy, like any other college student before class.

“I see it as a culmination of my work as a cellist and an artist at this point in my life,” said Cho, 20. “But there’s definitely more to come.”

Held every four years, the Tchaikovsky Competition is considered one of the top contests in the world for cellists, violinists, pianists and vocalists. The first round is considered an audition to compete; Cho will audition June 13.

To be invited to audition is considered a high honor in itself. Cho hailed Jensen, who has taught him since he was 11, and the “incredible work ethic” and support of his parents for his success.

Stephen and Michelle Cho, his parents, sold their home and moved into a smaller house in Ridgefield, N.J., to help Cho afford the $520,000 cello that he will take to Moscow.

They were interested in downsizing, Michelle Cho said in a phone interview, but also wanted to help their son achieve his dream.

“We didn’t hesitate,” she said. “I understood he needed a better cello.”

The instrument was made in 1668 in Modena, Italy, by Antonio Casini, and Cho said it has “infinite depth in the sound.”

A high-quality cello can elevate the sound of a soloist in a concert hall, Jensen said, but can cost up to $2 million. But ultimately, the quality of the music depends on the “imagination” of the player. Performing at such a high level is a balancing act of emotion, intellect and intuition.

“In the end, it all comes together as one,” Jensen said.

Since they first began working together, Jensen said, Cho has grown increasingly focused and independent as a person, and skillful as a cellist.

“You have to be able to change your style,” Jensen said. “He’s very precise, but he also has the ability to change style from piece to piece.”

Cho began playing cello when he was 7. Unlike many other musical prodigies, he wasn’t born into a musical family. Besides his older brother, he said no one in his family played an instrument.

“His cello teacher told us that he had music inside him,” his mother said. “I was surprised.”

But it wasn’t until 2006 when Cho was accepted into the Meadowmount School of Music, a summer institute in Upstate New York, that he met Jensen, who taught there. Through monthly visits, Skype calls and now at Northwestern, Jensen has taught Cho ever since.

Jensen set higher standards, Cho said, and helped him realize his potential.

“A lot of teachers tend to sugarcoat things. They compliment you a lot, and they don’t get to the point,” Cho said. “What I like about Professor Jensen is, if there’s something he likes, he’ll tell you. And if there’s something he doesn’t like, he’ll tell you.”

It’s been 12 years since Jensen had a student play in the Tchaikovsky Competition. Now, he has three.

Two of Jensen’s private students also will compete — John Henry Crawford, another American, and Sihao He, of China. The three cellists are good friends, Cho said.

To win the competition, it’s not enough to play great, Jensen said. You have to be lucky, too.

Jensen’s message to his students: “Enjoy the process.”

Cho has succeeded on the international stage before, placing third at the Gaspar Cassado International Violoncello Competition in Japan in 2013. Sihao He, one of Jensen’s other students, took first in that contest.

Cho has dreams beyond the Tchaikovsky Competition. An aspiring soloist, Cho would also like to have his own studio someday and teach others.

After all the countless hours of practice — just Cho, his cello and perhaps an imagined crowd — the music has become something else, too, Cho said, something that’s not beholden to contests and other measures of success.

“There’s a very indescribable part of it that speaks to my heart,” Cho said. “It really feels like another language.”

Before the Tchaikovsky Competition, Cho will perform free recitals at 7:30 p.m. on May 27 and June 2 at the Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at Northwestern University.


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