Cliburn medalist Yekwon Sunwoo makes impressive area recital debut at NU
By John von Rhein
With ritual solemnity, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, the world’s biggest in terms of visibility and prizes, unfolds every four years in Fort Worth, Texas, where its famous namesake lived.
Gold medalists go home with a cash award of $50,000, three years of concert management and bookings, a commercial recording and concert attire by Neiman Marcus. A handful of gold, silver and bronze medalists have based successful careers on their contest victories. Many have faded from view. Even so, the hope of turning up another Van Cliburn springs eternal.
The latest Cliburn wannabe to emerge from that prestigious fray is Yekwon Sunwoo, a boyish-looking, slightly built, 28-year-old virtuoso from South Korea, who took the gold at the 15th Cliburn competition in June, when he beat out some 30 other competitors. As part of the global performance itinerary that’s part of his winnings, he made his Chicago recital debut Friday night at a sold-out Mary B. Galvin Hall at Northwestern University.
He scored big with the crowd, as you might expect from a pianist who commands a comprehensive technical arsenal that allows him to thunder without breaking a sweat. But what impressed me the most was his remarkably mature musicality. Excellent training helped: Sunwoo studied with the respected pianist-pedagogues Seymour Lipkin and Richard Goode and holds degrees and artist diplomas from three top American institutions — the Curtis Institute of Music, Juilliard School and Mannes School of Music. He presently studies in Hannover, Germany.
A couple of cautionary lights went off in my mind in the course of the pianist’s absorbing program, but most of my first impressions were very positive. I heard much tonally ravishing pianism that went well beyond the predictable crunching virtuosity and impeccable digital accuracy to reveal a genuine poetic sensibility, a way of making the music his own and telling you things about it you had not heard before.
Sunwoo’s powerful, flying hands can do anything he puts his mind to at the keyboard. Fortunately, his mind appears to be teeming with thoughtful musical ideas that he conveys to the listener with a winning warmth and directness of expression. Not every competition-approved young hopeful has that ability, which is one reason I will be monitoring his career odyssey with unusual interest.
He demonstrated his classical bona fides at the outset, with a serious and searching account of one of the late Schubert sonatas, the C minor, D. 958.
He kept the surging, quasi-Beethovenian drama of the challenging first movement very much at the fore, his forte playing gorgeously rounded, never harsh. Fine detail was duly observed, but so, too, were the structural signposts. The slow movement was a serene song without words, rendered with the utmost sensitivity and exceptional tonal refinement. In lesser hands, the finale can feel overly long. Not this time: The pianism was invested with a crisp rhythmic elan and instinctive grace not given to many pianists of Sunwoo’s age or experience.
He devoted the bulk of the second half to repertory that helped to clinch his triumph at the Cliburn – Sergei Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor and Ravel’s “La Valse.”
No mean pianist himself, Rachmaninov once observed that he wrote his Third Piano Concerto “for elephants.” As much could be said about his Second Sonata, a fire-breathing behemoth that’s best left to pianistic pachyderms like the great Vladimir Horowitz. Tackling the composer’s 1931 revision, Sunwoo unleashed an impeccably controlled torrent of sinewy sound for the big bravura pages, supple lyricism for the more tender sections. And he did so with an effortless virtuosity, ardor and sweep that made this music feel like something deeper than Lisztian glitter retrofitted with a Russian accent.
Technically speaking, Sunwoo’s Ravel was just as jaw-dropping as his Rachmaninov. The hard brilliance of sound he drew from the Steinway, sometimes at breakneck speed, was astonishing to behold. The pianist made a flat-out showpiece of it, which was fine except that all that queasy manipulation of the waltz rhythms disturbed the musical continuity. Clearly mine was a minority reaction, for the crowd clearly ate it up.
I found more to enjoy in his treatment of two bonbons.
Percy Grainger’s so-called “Ramble” on the love duet that ends Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” is perfect little musical gem, awash in delicate arpeggios, with silvery echoes of Octavian’s presentation of the rose to Sophie from earlier in the opera. Sunwoo played it wonderfully. Why don’t more pianists perform this piece?
Surveying the chilly waters of Lake Michigan just beyond the 30-foot picture window of steel-reinforced glass that flanks the stage of Galvin Hall, Sunwoo told the audience he found Tchaikovsky’s evocation of the month of October, in that composer’s “The Seasons,” “appropriate to this view” — and that’s what he offered as his single encore. Lovely.
It’s left for Sunwoo to further develop his remarkable artistic potential in the demanding crucible of global performance. He is a young talent of exciting promise. One wishes him well in his solo career odyssey.
Photo (left): Yekwon Sunwoo performs at Northwestern University’s Mary B. Galvin Recital Hall in Evanston on Oct. 27, 2017. He displayed a remarkably mature musicality. (Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune)