Since making his American debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in 2004 at age 23, Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen has been on the ascendancy, garnering rave reviews along the way. Indeed, The Washington Post hailed his “impeccable technique and … clear-eyed approach to music,” while The New York Times lauded his “elegant musicianship.”
That talent will be on full display when Pohjonen performs works by Franz Schubert, Clara Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn on July 23 at Atherton’s Spieker Center for the Arts in a concert presented by Music@Menlo. (The internationally acclaimed chamber music festival and institute, which this year is dubbed “Beethoven Unfolding,” runs from July 14 – Aug. 5 and features immersive programming, as well as a roster of world-class artists.)
One of today’s most exciting instrumentalists, Pohjonen was born in Helsinki, Finland, in 1981 and began his piano studies in 1989 at the Junior Academy of the Sibelius Academy, subsequently earning a master’s degree at the conservatory in 2008. In 2009, he was selected by András Schiff as the winner of the Klavier Festival Ruhr Scholarship, just one of many prizes the young Finn has snagged at both international and Finnish competitions, including first prize at the 2004 Nordic Piano Competition in Nyborg, Denmark.
Performing widely in Europe, Asia, and North America, whether with symphony orchestras or in recital and chamber settings, Pohjonen is also — no surprise — an avid exponent of Scandinavian music, with his discography offering a veritable showcase of music by Finnish compatriots, including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Kaija Saariaho, and Jean Sibelius. Other recordings include The Dvořák Album with cellist Jan Vogler and Bach: Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano with violinist Nicolas Dautricourt.
Pohjonen has appeared numerous times at Music@Menlo and also enjoys an ongoing relationship with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He has played alongside the Escher and Calidore String Quartets, in addition to regularly appearing at festivals, including those in Lucerne and Norway and at ChamberFest Cleveland.
SF Classical Voice recently had a chance to speak with Pohjonen over Zoom, with the conversation ranging from his attraction to new music to his AI-based app MyPianist, which he created with his brother Joonas.
Where are you based, and was there music in your family?
My home is in Helsinki; I was born there. [Regarding] my family, it wasn’t particularly musical, but they had a very deep appreciation for sound and music because on my mother’s side, my grandparents were both deaf and communicated through sign language. This made my family appreciate the ability to hear, and music had a special place in our lives. It’s unusual for a musician.
Your upcoming Music@Menlo appearance will be something like your eighth time. What keeps you coming back?
They keep inviting me back. It’s also one of, I would say, the world’s best-organized festivals, and I always enjoy going there. I get to play with great people, and I get to teach students chamber music. And I don’t teach just piano students — also string quartets, trios, everything.
Let’s talk about your program, which will also be livestreamed. You’re playing Schubert’s String Trio in B-flat Major, D, 581; Clara Schumann’s Three Romances for Violin and Piano, Op. 22; and Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49. How do you go about programming a concert, what drew you to these works, and why are you not performing Beethoven in a festival called “Beethoven Unfolding”?
Mendelssohn was influenced by Beethoven, so were Clara Schumann and others. The programming is done by the artistic directors, David Finckel and Wu Han. They also decide which people will create a nice ensemble together. In this case, [violinist] Aaron Boyd, who I have played with quite a few times, and I will play the Clara Schumann, and it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of approach other people take to the music.
For myself, it’s always rewarding to exchange ideas, and my own interpretation of the piece might change based on what other people are doing. You have to live kind of in the moment when you play chamber music. You can’t have preconceived notions; it’s [about] adaptability.
How would you describe your relationship with your fellow Finn Esa-Pekka Salonen?
I met him for the first time when I was in my 20s. I got a debut recital at Weill Recital Hall and was thinking what kind of program I should play and thought it would be nice to program something Finnish. At that time, Esa-Pekka had only two solo piano compositions, so I programmed them both.
The [director] of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra heard somehow that I was doing these pieces — I think she heard it through András Schiff, who happened to give a master class — and they put us together. I played for [Salonen], and he was very impressed that I was playing his music and was enthusiastic about this music.
Then he helped me to get a manager in the U.K.; he has been extremely helpful. Later, I played his  concerto — I was the second pianist playing it after Yefim Bronfman — but we had played other pieces together [with Salonen conducting]. I think he’s really great to work with because I feel like I’m playing chamber music with him. It’s always an exchange of musical ideas. He’s a conductor who not just follows you but also contributes all the time.
What’s your attraction to new music, and what do you look for when commissioning a work?
I’m very curious about new music. I’ve only commissioned a couple of works, [including] something from my brother, who is also a composer, because I knew what I was going to get. I commissioned one cello sonata, and I then helped commissioned a piece for viola and AI, which I’ll talk about a bit later.
I find contemporary music always demanding, and intellectually, I really want to get into the intentions of the composer. With Classical and Romantic music, I know that I have the background and the ability to see where it all connects — the history and what the composer wants to do — but sometimes with contemporary music, I feel more puzzled.
It seems like an intellectual exercise where I have to decipher the puzzle before I can play. I never just want to play the notes; I want to understand what the notes mean. There are some contemporary composers whose music speaks to me in a way I feel that I understand what they want to say.
[Australian composer] Brett Dean, when I listen to his music it gives my brain kind of the same thing, kind of the excitement that listening to Mozart does in some ways. It’s really hard to say how, but somehow the harmonies, rhythms, and textures make sense, but they also have a freshness I haven’t heard in another kind of music. I’m about to record Brett’s piece, with the composer himself. He wrote an opera, Hamlet , and then, as a side project, he did quite a major work for viola and piano that used material from the opera. It’s called Rooms of Elsinore, which we were meant to record [earlier], but then COVID hit.
You mentioned AI, which you used to create the app MyPianist. It’s a virtual accompanist that listens and reacts to your playing as if it were a real pianist. What was the genesis of the app, and how is it doing?
I had an unused talent for programming computers, and I always liked coding and never really did anything productive with that. But 10 years ago, I thought maybe it was time to put this unused talent to work. I remember [that] when I was a young student learning music on violin, the best moments were when I could play with somebody. [I thought] that there was maybe some way to replicate this process and bring it to young instrumentalists so they could enjoy their practice a bit more.
They could learn from hearing the piano part being played together with them. At that point, I didn’t know how to do any of this and had to do a lot of research. I started thinking about what happens in my brain, what kind of thought process is happening, and slowly I tried to break down this program into small parts and figured out each part and how to solve it.
My brother was quite skeptical, but one day I managed to make a prototype that could play an allegro from Suzuki books — something extremely simple. Once I realized that it was going to work, I got more excited about the project, and during the pandemic, I started thinking how to turn the prototype into a product. It still took a lot of time, and I released this app after seven years of work.
Because of the pandemic, suddenly there was a demand for this. People had to stay at home and couldn’t play with other pianists. That gave a little boost because I never had much money to spend on promotion. I tried to do it on the smallest budget possible — and didn’t want to charge users too much because I know music students don’t have much money. I wanted my app to benefit people as much as possible, especially students.
Did you ever wonder if it would put pianists like yourself out of work?
At some point, I was questioning the morality of the app — whether it’s a good thing to have access to this kind of AI or if it’s not going to be beneficial enough for the student: Are they going to learn bad habits, letting them play like crazy with no pulse or no timing? I had to think about all these things.
[Because] one of the nice things about chamber music is always the pushing and pulling of the tempo, which affects the exchange of ideas, I tried to somehow incorporate this aspect of playing chamber music into the app. Of course, it’s never going to be a replacement for a real pianist, but it is valuable as a practice tool. Some students who were reluctant to practice anything have increased their practice time because of the app.
Barring your becoming some kind of tech mogul, where do you see yourself in the next five to 10 years?
That’s a tough question. As a musician, I always want to keep exploring new ideas about music. I’ve learned to see so many new connections between piano playing and the life around me — to find analogies between things and new ways to create colors on the piano. I think my aim is to develop as a pianist just by learning new things.
Once you start being comfortable and thinking that you know everything, that’s the beginning of the end. To focus on the present is more important. In life, you have to embrace the uncertainty of the present. Every day, you get unexpected opportunities. Either you act on them, or you don’t. For myself, that’s much more important. To live in the present, you [also] want to have a goal for yourself. I would never have released my app if I didn’t have a goal. Some moments I had doubts. But the journey’s more important than the destination.