Mercury News: Superstar Korean pianist, modest as ever

Mercury News: Superstar Korean pianist, modest as ever

Mercury News

Superstar Korean pianist, modest as ever,
comes to South Bay recital
By Elijah Ho

Few people are more attuned to the subtleties of pianistic talent than Robert McDonald, professor of piano at the Juilliard School and Chair of Piano Studies at the Curtis Institute. So when he identifies a talent of special magnitude, the music world tends to tune-in.

“There was this young man who walked onto the stage in Seoul years ago, and after he played, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh,’” McDonald recalled of a certain musician who commanded his attention. “The 17-year-old basically had no physical barriers. It was just the music.”

The wunderkind was Yekwon Sunwoo, who would wind up winning the gold medal at the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition earlier this year. He performs a Steinway Society concert Oct. 8 at the McAfee Performing Arts and Lecture Center in Saratoga.

The native of Anyang, Korea, now 28 and a former pupil of McDonald at Juilliard, has conquered the ferocious competition circuit, with first-place finishes in the William Kapell, Sendai, Verbier and Frankfurt competitions as well.

Victories, however, no longer guarantee a career; laureates, more often than not, are forgotten within years of their triumphs.

“We have 17 days to find a unique voice, someone who will stand the test of time,” says Jacques Marquis, President and CEO of the Cliburn. “Yekwon has done everything to a fantastic level so far. He’s been a dream to manage.”

In fact, the fury of first-place finishes and dazzling performances belie one of the more humble and compelling musical personalities in recent memory.

“I wasn’t a prodigy. Not at all,” Sunwoo says with a laugh in an interview after a long flight from Asia. “In Korea, at an early age, you go to private schools where the focus is on music and other types of art. You’re surrounded by friends who have similar goals and the environment helps you to focus. There were younger kids more advanced than me, and it motivated me to work harder.”

It helps that South Korea exhibits a mass interest in classical music across generational lines. The country of roughly 50 million is in the midst of a windfall of prize-winners at international competitions. This season, alone, the Steinway Society features Sunwoo, 2015 Chopin winner Seong Jin Cho, and 2009 Cliburn silver medalist, Yeol Eum Son.

“Compared to Europe or the U.S., you now see a lot more young people at classical concerts in Korea, and many use blogs and social media to share their thoughts on classical musicians.”

A newly-minted national celebrity who appears on TV newspapers and websites, Sunwoo’s humility is making a lasting impression.

“He’s very attentive to people around him. That’s probably his greatest gift,” says Marquis. “The musicians all said, ‘We will play with Yekwon anytime. He’s fantastic, he’s a real musician, he listens and wants to collaborate.’”

“Yekwon has a rather remarkable balance within himself,” McDonald says. “The modesty is what you notice right away, and it’s genuine. But the strength in him is just as exceptional.”

That balance of strength and humility revealed itself at the Cliburn competition, where Sunwoo’s performance of works by Schubert, Rachmaninoff and Ravel, the core of Sunday’s program in Saratoga, left many speechless.

“Schubert’s melodies are still poignant, they’re so lonely, and they stay with me longer,” Sunwoo says of the 19th Sonata. “Rachmaninoff’s Second Sonata has so much passion, so many emotions and colors. And Ravel’s ‘La Valse’ doesn’t have to be described in words. If people come to the concert and feel the emotions in that beautiful music, that’s good enough for me.”

While many are inclined to the notion that classical music is on its last legs, Sunwoo, who’s seen otherwise in his own country, believes sincerity and exposure are key to its survival. “Classical music is not easy. Even as a musician, when I listen to other types of it, it’s difficult to get a sense of what it’s trying to express. It requires effort. Some musicians try to be effective for the audience, but I feel it’s unnatural. It never works because people know what they feel. Love of music, being sincere about feelings for music, these are most important to me.”