One to Watch: Yekwon Sunwoo
By Stephen Wigler
It was the unfailingly consistent excellence of Sunwoo’s performances that brought him the Gold Medal in Fort Worth. There were about a dozen other young pianists who gave superb performances during this more than two-week long piano marathon. I can’t think of another pianist who was so satisfying in so much, be it the searching seriousness of Schubert’s Sonata in C Minor, the sardonic wit of Prokofiev’s Sonata No 6, the thunder and fire of Rachmaninov’s Sonata No 2 and Concerto No 3, the shattering explosions and profound disquiet of Ravel’s La valse or the subtlety and graciousness of Mozart’s Concerto No 21.
To read the full article including thoughts from Yekwon Sunwoo, purchase the March/April issue of International Piano here.
Portland Piano International Review: Yekwon Sunwoo, October 14, 2017
By James Bash
Sunwoo showed no signs of jetlag in his performance at Lincoln Concert Hall. His immaculate playing of Schubert’s Sonata in C minor D958 was filled with subtle nuances such as a slightly slow tempo for the recapitulation of a theme, which made it linger seductively. In the final Allegro he delivered a lightly rocking rhythm that became more demonstrative yet never overstated. The many hand-crossings were incisively executed, and the overall effect of the piece was emotionally satisfying.
Read the full review in International Piano‘s January/February 2018 issue, available digitally here.
Keynote Artist Management announces today that Yekwon will join the firm’s roster for worldwide general management, effective immediately.
In June 2017, Yekwon was named the gold medalist of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, at 28 years of age. In addition to cash and other prizes, he received three years of guaranteed comprehensive career management from the Cliburn, including mentorship and international concert bookings from the London-based Keynote Artist Management. Keynote manager Claudia Clarkson was immediately struck by Mr. Sunwoo’s charisma and authority at the keyboard when she heard him in Fort Worth during the Competition, which, in part, led to this offer of worldwide management just 6 months after his win.
Mr. Sunwoo’s Decca Gold album, Cliburn Gold 2017, reached #1 on the Billboard’s Traditional Classical Chart its first week of release in August. Featuring his Competition-winning performances of Ravel, Haydn, and Rachmaninoff, the recording is available on all major outlets (including the Cliburn Shop at www.cliburn.org).
Since then he has made an undeniable impression during his fall tour around the world, including his:
- sold-out Chicago recital debut, lauded for “ravishing pianisim… a genuine poetic sensibility, a way of making the music his own and telling you things about it you had not heard before” (Chicago Tribune)
- return to the Cliburn stage in Fort Worth, where “it was clear that something special was happening… I sensed emotional depths I’d never before imagined” (Dallas Morning News)
- special performance, alongside Renée Fleming and Cynthia Nixon, for the New York Public Radio Gala 2017
- U.K. concerto debut with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and other performances across Europe, Asia, and North America.
Yekwon Sunwoo – 2017 Cliburn Competition Gold Medalist
By Leonne Lewis
Soon after 28-year-old Yekwon Sunwoo won the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Decca Gold released a recording of his performances at the competition called Cliburn Gold, which became number one on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Album charts.
Those who live streamed or attended this year’s Cliburn Competition were bowled over by Yekwon Sunwoo’s dynamic playing, as were the jury members who awarded him a gold medal with its built-in perks that include three years of concert tours in the US and at international venues and fashion threads – concert attire supplied by Neiman Marcus which is reason enough to practice hours a day for a chance to compete!
Over the next few seasons and beyond, Sunwoo will appear with high-profile groups such as Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Elbphilharmonie, National Orchestra of Cuba, and perform at Aspen Music Festival, Istanbul Music Festival, Klavier-Festival Ruhr and the Gewandhaus in Leipzig.
Sunwoo’s playing was center stage even before his participation in The Cliburn Competition as evidenced by his winning the 2015 International German Piano Award, 2014 Vendome Prize at Verbier Festival and 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition. Already a seasoned performer, he has given recitals in South Korea, Europe, Costa Rica and appeared with major orchestras including the Houston Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, National Orchestra of Belgium.
He also concentrates on chamber music in collaboration with such artists as members of the Brentano and Jerusalem Strings Quartets, Ida Kafavian, Peter Wiley and released recordings with violinist Benjamin Beilman on the Warner Classics and Analekta labels.
He began piano studies in his native South Korea at age 8 and then relocated to the US in 2005 where he received a bachelor’s degree at The Curtis Institute of Music with Seymour Lipkin, a master’s degree at The Juilliard School with Robert McDonald and an artist diploma at the Mannes School of Music with Richard Goode. He currently studies with Bernd Goetzke in Hannover, Germany.
Yekwon Sunwoo talks about his career with Editor Leonne Lewis.
You studied in South Korea and at conservatories in the US. Have mentors of these schools influenced your approach to piano playing?
I feel extremely fortunate to have such wonderful teachers and they all share the same trait of being genuine and sincere musicians and warmhearted human beings. I am deeply saddened by Seymour Lipkin’s passing two years ago, but have fond memories of working with him at Curtis for six years beginning in 2005, when I was 16 years old. During the time I worked with him, I became more exposed to diverse music and he helped me open up my heart and play as if actually singing with my own voice.
After that, I went to Juilliard to work with Robert McDonald for two years. He has incredibly sensitive ears, which helped me become more attentive in listening to my own sound and the phrasing coming out as intended. Then, I went to study with Richard Goode at Mannes School of Music for two years. From time to time he would be away giving concerts, but whenever he was in town I would come to his house and play for him – and sometimes this went on for two or three hours.
He demonstrated a lot and it was sheer beauty to stand right next to him and hear him play, and I would feel as if I was reborn after each time. His whole life is faithfully dedicated to discovering the true intentions of each composer and I learned so much from him, like not taking every phrase each composer writes for granted.
In the Fall of 2016 I moved to Munich and currently study with Bernd Goetzke in Hannover. I’ve been working with him for just a year now but he has helped me to have more conviction in my music making and especially in shaping each phrase according to the requirements of the composer and understanding the whole structure in a more constructive way. I am forever grateful for guidance from all these teachers. They all made me love music even more deeply so that I can really bring out all emotions through piano playing.
You have won many international piano competitions. Does your approach change when playing for competitions or performing live concerts?
I believe strongly in not having a different thought process when performing in concerts or competitions. You are there to play your heart out and to share all kinds of emotions that are going through at every second of music making and hopefully convey them to audience members. The only difference might be in these two elements. First, you have to be even more focused and mentally strong when participating in a competition because you are under high pressure and there is the cruel fact that the announcement awaits after each round. Secondly, you are handling a huge amount of repertoire, so you need to understand your physical stamina and how to balance it all at once.
However, it is all about music making in the end and conveying your own interpretation with conviction. Seeking the composer’s intentions and putting all your endeavors into making the music come alive should be the main concern at all times.
Since winning The Cliburn Competition, what are some of your career and artistic goals?
Since I first started playing the piano when I was 8-years-old my ultimate dream has always been to become a concert pianist, travel all around the world and share all these feelings through music. Winning the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition has opened up a new chapter for me and this definitely helps my dream continue. I have a personal affinity towards German and Russian repertoire so I would like to focus more on this repertoire for now. Having performed works such as Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 6 and Thomas Ades Traced Overhead, I would also like to explore more contemporary works that are not yet often played. After winning the Van Cliburn Competition, I know that the exciting musical journey will continue.
Royal Scottish National Orchestra Review
By Simon Thompson
What impressed me most about this performance [of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto] is that both conductor and, especially, the young soloist were keen to point up the lighter, lyrical aspects of the concerto rather than the scene-stealing climaxes. Yekwon Sunwoo has just won the Van Cliburn competition, so he carries a lot of potential with him and, based on his performance tonight, I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot of him in future. The undulating opening was gentle, almost understated, and that set the tone for a first movement in which Sunwoo was unafraid of going for a genuine pianissimo, not least in the dreamy second subject. This is, after all, a work of light and shade: fireworks came later, most notably at the climax of the development and the outer edges of the finale, but they were more effective because the groundwork had been laid for them so successfully. Throughout, his playing was clean, architectural and brilliantly controlled, and the orchestra responded with lovely tone that was not unlike Shostakovich in its lower strings, but seemed to be channelling the Romanticism of Tchaikovsky in the second movement.
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)
The New York Times
Hear the Martha Argerich Recordings That
Inspired 8 Young Pianists
By Josh Barone
Yekwon Sunwoo, the 28-year-old South Korean pianist who won this year’s Cliburn Competition, loved Ms. Argerich’s recording of “Gaspard de la Nuit,” but then he found a video of her playing the piece.
The first movement, “Ondine,” had a “wonderful sense of singing melody while the waves never stopped with such grace — effortless,” he said. And the finale, “Scarbo,” both “evaporated into the atmosphere” and “sparkled with so many different layers of sounds.”
Mr. Sunwoo looked to Ms. Argerich’s “Scarbo” for inspiration when he learned the piece. “I particularly admired her incredible velocity over the keyboard, but with musical intentions,” he said. “I tried to create more drama and sweeping gestures like she does.”
San Francisco Classical Voice
Yekwon Sunwoo Woos Audience With a Champion’s Technique and Expression
By Ken Iisaka
The Steinway Society has been presenting piano recitals for over 20 years in the South Bay. Over the years, it has engaged major piano competition winners particularly those from the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
The 2017–2018 season is no exception, with all three medalists from the most recent competition in Fort Worth. On Sunday, this year’s gold medalist, Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea filled the McAfee Center in Saratoga.
With so many highly capable pianists churned out by conservatories around the world, winning a major competition is no guarantee of a successful career, and winners must still win the hearts of audiences after a victory. The years following a competition victory present the real competition, and the audience is the real jury.
Sunwoo made a strong case for himself with a stunning, introspective reading of the solemn Schubert Sonata in C Minor, D.958, composed months before the composer’s death. Along with two other sonatas written at the same time, the work is heavily infused with Schubert’s desperate search for peace and reconciliation. Beginning with a dramatic, rhythmically taut opening, the first movement evolved with hopeful lyricism, though darkness always beckoned. Sunwoo was particularly evocative in the prayer-like second movement, perhaps alluding to the composer transcending into the other world. The final tarantella movement unfolded cinematically, with volatile and sudden changes of colors adding life.
Sunwoo’s special quality became self-evident quickly: He possesses the uncanny ability to maintain soaring lyricism, holding counterpoint and accompaniment in an exquisite balance, laying them out clearly using well-differentiated tones and colors. Such a natural inclination turned the Rachmaninoff Sonata No. 2 in the second half of the program into something out of the ordinary. Rather than attacking the work with fistfuls of notes that could easily meld into a wall of sound, he laid out the layers buried in the score into clear compartments. While losing none of the rich, voluptuous Russian romanticism, his delivery was carefully calculated and measured with discipline. It was a refreshing perspective on an overly played, and often overly-indulgent warhorse.
Sunwoo ended the concert program with a macabre reading of Ravel’s La Valse. Rather than evoking romantic nostalgia for 19th-century Vienna, the emerging picture was grim and perhaps even grotesque at times — perhaps reminiscent of World War I — with a terrifying, rumbling roar in the opening. With his characteristic clarity and sparse, judicious use of the sustain pedal, Sunwoo again preserved the intricate details in the score, adding oft-neglected dimensions. Long crescendos came in waves, making subsequent torrents more frightening and the narrative vivid and life-like, but the performance never ran out of breath or strength.
Percy Grainger’s arrangement of “Ramble on the last Love-duet” from Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier was a kaleidoscopic interlude after the intermission, with a wide gamut of colors, brought out with a deft use of the seldom-used sostenuto pedal, as demanded by Grainger. A brazen reading of Liszt’s La Campanella was a nice ribbon for a well-packaged gift to the audience.
Portrait of a Gold Medalist, Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
By Xenia Hanusiak
They say that fortune favours the brave, and one hopes this will prove true for 28-year-old South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, the Gold Medalist of the 2017 Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held in Fort Worth last June. As one part of his prize, Sunwoo’s tour of honour includes sixty-seven concerts in an uninterrupted zigzag to the north, south, east and west, across four continents in one year. The arithmetic of this marathon of solo recitals, concerti, and chamber music concerts is simple — many back-to-back engagements. In March 2018, for instance, Sunwoo will play a recital at the Heidelberg Festival on one night, followed by an afternoon concert in Denmark the next day. A schedule as rigorous as this one, even for a seasoned professional, demands precision scheduling, robust technique, a healthy constitution, a strong dose of hope that everything goes according to plan, and above all, daring. At this year’s post-competition press conference, the jury chairman, conductor Leonard Slatkin, said: “Sunwoo was chosen as the winner, because the jury felt he would withstand the demanding schedule.” Sunwoo’s stamina through the six rounds had been built by his recent competition schedule. Before the Van Cliburn, he had already won first prizes at the International German Piano Award, the Vendome Prize, and the Sendai International Music Competition.
Sunwoo has packed three concerti (the Rachmaninov Concert No. 3 — which he performed at the competition — Brahms Concerto No. 2, and the Grieg Concerto); three recital programs of Schubert, Strauss and Ravel; and a portfolio of chamber music repertoire for an itinerary that boasts career-defining opportunities at Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie, the Leipzig Gewandhaus, and the Istanbul Music Festival.
I spoke with Sunwoo about his ambitions in a Skype interview one-quarter way through his schedule. He began learning the piano at the age of eight in the mountain city of Anyang. “I was a very shy boy when I was younger, but I really enjoyed going to the piano academy in the neighbourhood … You didn’t have to be talkative with words when you were at the piano … Going there to practice, for me it felt as if I was going to a playground,” he said.
The most significant step of his career came in 2000 when he was chosen as one of only four pianists admitted to Philadelphia’s elite Curtis Institute of Music in that year. Still a high school student, Sunwoo was unable to speak any English. He said he communicated with his teacher Seymour Lipkin through gestures. Now in 2017, with an American accent and the prestigious Van Cliburn Piano Prize in tow, Sunwoo has moved to Hannover to study with Bernd Goetzke. The Cliburn tour briefly returns Sunwoo to his birthplace. At one of his seven concerts in South Korea, the hometown hero will perform his lucky charm piece, the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3, with the Munich Philharmonic conducted by Valery Gergiev. When I ask him about his dream gig, he hesitates, then says, “Either the Berlin Philharmonic or the New York Philharmonic, performing Brahms Concerto No. 1, with Sir Simon Rattle.” Fortune favours the brave.
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.”
Cliburn winner Yekwon Sunwoo provides
subtle surprises in a daring performance
By Scott Cantrell
Yekwon Sunwoo clearly had decided to defy expectations.
The stereotypical piano competition winner has expertly machined technique and enjoys showing it off, but without overly rocking interpretive boats. Sunwoo’s recital Tuesday night, though, was conspicuously short on showpieces.
Indeed, not until the final dozen minutes of the 28-year-old South Korean’s recital, his first in the area since winning the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June, did he release the fireworks.
It was a daring gesture, in the first program of the 2017-18 Cliburn Concerts, at Bass Performance Hall, to make so much of so many small-scale pieces. The first half was all Mozart, and in the Romance in A-flat major (K. Anh. 205), Rondo in A minor (K. 511) and Sonata in C major (K. 330), only rarely did the playing suggest so much as a forte. The bulk of the recital’s second half was devoted to six Schubert pieces composed for amateur pianists, the Moments musicaux.
From the very beginning of the Romance (which may not even be by Mozart), though, it was clear that something special was happening. There was the loveliest soft focus, the most gracious turn of phrases, the keenest sensitivity to harmonic nuance, but never with the slightest fussiness. There was dancing jollity in the outer movements of the sonata, but in an 18th-century silks-and-satins sense.
This was the opposite of playing to impress an audience. In the Schubert pieces, even more so, one had the feeling of overhearing a musician almost unaware of listeners, engaged in an intimate, wholly focused communion with a composer.
The ostensible simplicities of these pieces are deceptive. Assembled in the last year of Schubert’s life, when his health was failing from complications of syphilis, they inhabit some of the same world as the tragic song cycle Die Winterreise. There’s the perky little F minor march (No. 3), but much else in the Moments musicaux seems as much about lost love and innocence as the songs.
At least so it seemed in Sunwoo’s intimate, subtly timed and textured interpretations. In music whose dynamic level rarely rises above a piano, I sensed emotional depths I’d never before imagined.
The showpiece was Ravel’s La valse, which, although by a Frenchman, continued a Viennese theme. (Mozart spent his last 10 years in the Austrian capital, Schubert most of his life; Ravel imagined La valse evoking a surreal Viennese ball.) Sunwoo delivered the flash and flair, but also the patches of real weirdness, with cinematic vividness.
After a rousing ovation, though, the encore was yet another intimacy, an aptly autumnal “October” from Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons.
I had mixed feelings with Sunwoo’s performances during the competition back in June, but this recital displayed rare sensitivity and subtlety. I look forward to hearing more from a very promising young artist — maybe next time in Dallas’ Moody Performance Hall?
The Strait Times
CLIBURN GOLD 2017
By Chang Tou Liang
In June this year, 28-year-old Yekwon Sunwoo became the first Korean pianist to win first prize at the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held in Fort Worth, Texas. This winner’s recital disc captures “live” some of his key solo performances in three rounds of competition.
Included is the world premiere recording of Canadian pianist-composer Marc-Andre Hamelin’s Toccata On L’Homme Arme, the specially commissioned set-piece for this competition. It is a no-holds-barred fantasy on a mediaeval French song that literally sweeps the entire keyboard and Sunwoo nails it with stunning aplomb.
His musicality is also displayed in Haydn’s Sonata No. 58 In C Major and Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s lied Litanei (Am Tage Aller Seelen), pieces which may be considered anti-virtuosic for their lack of outright showiness. However, these are a foil for the gilded sheen applied to Percy Grainger’s Ramble On Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier Final Duet, which demands the most delicate of touches and fine sense of balance in revealing the harmonies.
The through-and-through showpieces come in Ravel’s La Valse and Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata (Op. 36, the shorter 1931 edition), which Sunwoo delivers like any Cliburn laureate should. An hour’s worth of piano gold seems like short measure, but here is a worthy musical calling card.
Cliburn winner stunning in WSO opening concert
By Carl Hoover
In a brilliant performance of Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with the Waco Symphony Orchestra Thursday night, pianist Yekwon Sunwoo displayed the impressive musicality that results when both head and heart drive well-trained hands.
Sunwoo, winner of this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held every four years in Fort Worth, played the Brahms masterwork with a clarity of line that seemed to reveal Brahms’ mind at work, whether defining a variation of phrase or dynamic, echoing an orchestral part or connecting a theme.
The pianist seemed to know what was going on in the work at every moment and delivered exactly was needed, whether a clear melody or softly shaded chord, with little flash or physical exaggeration. In a motif throughout the work, Sunwoo would punctuate a keyboard spanning run with a firm high note, followed by the fading whisper of a lower tone.
Sunwoo also played with heart, adding heat and energy to the second movement and a translucent grace to the following third.
It’s not uncommon for audiences these days to applaud after the Brahms concerto’s rousing opening movement, nearly a self-contained concerto in itself, but Sunwoo’s playing was so compelling that the Waco Hall audience applauded after every movement, even after a collective breath-holding silence at the close of the third. Only a blue-nosed classical Puritan could be unforgiving about this.
The WSO, under Music Director Stephen Heyde’s baton, matched the pianist’s performance with robust play and a passion expressed not only in strong dynamics, as in the first two movements, but soulfulness, the latter most realized in the third movement framed by heart-melting solos by cello principal Elaine Whitmire and support from cellos and violas.
After two standing ovations at the concerto’s end, Sunwoo returned for an encore of a Schubert lied that he dedicated to Heyde and his mother. Sunwoo turned from a superbly balanced navigation of the Brahms’ complexity and density to an exquisitely shaded revelation of melody and tone in the Schubert.
This was a performance to be remembered.
The concert’s opening half had heft and musicality as well. Hornist Jeffrey Powers and trombonist Brent Phillips on alto trombone provided the highlighted solo and duet lines that drove the Michael Haydn concertino starting the evening, their warm tones a lovely blend.
“Night Ride and Sunrise,” the Sibelius tone poem that followed, was oddly structured, but nonetheless compelling. Strings repeated a galloping, rising-and-falling motif for a good portion of the work, once touched with percussion and woodwinds, before a full eight-horn chorus broke the spell with golden tone.
From there, the orchestra began a slow crescendo, carried by swelling strings and accented with chirping, singing phrases from woodwinds, to a rising, inspiring musical dawn.
By Andrew Anderson
I had never heard Cliburn gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo perform prior to listening to the recording of his recital (available here) in the semifinal round of the competition. If I had, I might have been even more excited, since his recital included some of my favorite works, composers and arrangers. He’s clearly an unusual talent, which is exactly what some of these works need. I also might have been a little scared of what such a colossal talent might do to some of them.
The first work on the recital, a transcription of Ravel’s orchestral La Valse, is a bit of a mystery in that his performance doesn’t match up note-for-note with Ravel’s version, Glenn Gould’s, or Matthieu Cognet’s. It’s likely Ravel’s with a little enhancement by Sunwoo. Whatever the case, it certainly requires considerable skill just to get all the notes in; but the real challenges come later. There seem to be unlimited opportunities for important voices to get lost in the snarl of all that’s going on in this huge piece—and every measure is huge—and not to lose any of them constitutes a near miracle. The orchestral version is one of my favorite works (I’ve been listening to it since I was a kid), but with this performance, I never wish I were listening to the original. That Sunwoo is able to pull so many different colors out of one piano is utterly amazing.
The inclusion of two more arrangements on the program is interesting, to say the least, since neither Percy Grainger’s Ramble on the Last Love-Duet from Der Rosenkavalier nor Franz Liszt’s transcription of Schubert’s Litanei is well-known, and neither constitutes much of a showpiece. Programming savvy, however, is part of the competition, and negotiating corners of the repertoire like this—obscure pieces by well-known composers, let’s say—can often be exciting, especially when performed as well as they are here. For me, these two works were refreshing surprises (not least because I’m both a Grainger nut and a Strauss nut) …
Just two weeks after Yekwon’s win at the Cliburn, Decca Gold releases an album of his select live performances at the Cliburn, available digitally here. The selections are hand picked from over four hours of Yekwon’s performances at the competition and include the new commissioned work by jury member Marc-André Hamelin, Toccata on L’homme armé, which is based on a French secular song from the Renaissance period.
The physical album will be released August 18! You may pre-order it through the Cliburn here.
Ravel: La Valse
R. Strauss: Ramble on the Last Love-Duet from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier
Hamelin: Toccata on “L’homme armé”
Haydn: Piano Sonata No.58 in C Major, Hob. XVI:48 – 1. Andante con espressione
Haydn: Piano Sonata No.58 in C Major, Hob. XVI:48 – 2. Rondo. Presto
Liszt: Litanei, S.562, No.1, (Am Tage Aller Seelen, D.343)
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No.2 In B Flat Minor, Op.36 – 1. Allegro Agitato
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No.2 In B Flat Minor, Op.36 – 2. Non allegro – Lento
Rachmaninov: Piano Sonata No.2 In B Flat Minor, Op.36 – 3. L’istesso tempo – Allegro molto
Hosted by Todd Zwillich
In 1958, a Texas pianist became a national hero when he won the first Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. He returned home to Fort Worth, Texas, where four years later, a music professor established a competition in his name.
Every four years since 1962, pianists from across the globe have descended on Fort Worth for one of the most prestigious classical piano competitions in the world. They play for two and a half weeks in the hope of launching an international career.
On Saturday, Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea won the competition, followed by two Americans: Kenneth Broberg of Minneapolis placed second, and Daniel Hsu of San Francisco placed third. Tonight, the three make their first public appearances as winners at WNYC’s The Greene Space, at an event hosted by WQXR’s Elliot Forest. Catch the live stream of that concert on WQXR.org.
Listen to the segment below:
New York Times Livestream
Nearly one week after Yekwon wins the 2017 Cliburn, he joins New York Times reporter, Josh Barone, at the Steinway Hall in New York City to discuss the rigors of the competition, what winning has meant for him, and all that lies ahead. And of course he fits playing several works in there too. Watch above or on Facebook here.
WQXR with Elliott Forrest
Less than a week after the Van Cliburn Piano Competition, the gold, silver and bronze medalists come to The Greene Space at WQXR for their first public appearance as winners. WQXR’s Elliott Forrest hosts this special sold-out evening of music and conversation.
Every four years, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition convenes the most promising rising star pianists from around the world for 17 days of intense competition. Established in 1962, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition is widely recognized as “one of the world’s highest-visibility classical music contests.” Winners are chosen by an esteemed panel of judges and awarded significant cash prizes, as well as three years of comprehensive career management and concert tours. Previous laureates include Radu Lupu, Olga Kern, Joyce Yang, Haochen Zhang, and Vadym Kholodenko.
The New York Times
South Korean Pianist Wins the Van Cliburn Competition
By Zachary Wolfe
Yekwon Sunwoo won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition on Saturday, besting 29 rivals over two weeks of playing to become the prestigious contest’s first champion from South Korea. The Cliburn, held every four years in Fort Worth, was founded in 1962 by Van Cliburn, the American pianist who stunned the world by winning the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of the Cold War.
Mr. Sunwoo, 28, played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in the final round, when each of the six remaining contestants performed first with a string quartet and then with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. The critic Scott Cantrell wrote in The Dallas Morning News that Mr. Sunwoo “tended to rush faster music, a common problem among other competitors — but he demonstrated a real, if not reliably mature, musical personality.”
Two Americans — Kenneth Broberg, 23, from Minneapolis, and Daniel Hsu, 19, of San Francisco — finished in second and third place.
Yekwon wins the gold medal at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, known as “the most prestigious classical music contest in the world” (The Chicago Tribune). He is the first South Korean to receive the coveted first prize. The 28-year old bested 29 competitors who performed in four rounds over the course of two weeks in Fort Worth, Texas. The applicant pool began with 290 pianists.
With the first prize comes a cash prize of $50,000 and a gold cup. More importantly, it comes with the tools to support and launch Yekwon’s career comprising of three years of career management including US and international concert tours, live recording, press kits, videos, and performance attire.
The 2017 edition of the competition brought live streaming of all performances for the first time across the world. The competition culminated in a live showing of the final concerto round in movie theaters across the nation. If you missed it, you may still watch all the live performances on Medici TV here.
Texas Classical Review
Cliburn Finals Round 3
By Wayne Lee Gay
South Korean competitor Yekwon Sunwoo tackled Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Sunwoo clearly moved into the final laps of his competition run with a fresh shot of adrenalin for this monstrously difficult work, displaying a mature, calm presence, with nearly perfect control of this pianistic earthquake. He took no easy paths here, consistently choosing maximum reasonable tempos and opting for the more difficult of the cadenza options in the first and third movements.
Equally impressive, Sunwoo clearly understood how to make the most of the series of thrilling moments Rachmaninoff provides; and, best of all, he knows how to pace them so that, from beginning to end of this 45-minute-long concerto, each high point is a little more breathtaking than the previous.
June 9, 2017
Review: Powerful Cliburn performances Friday keep audiences guessing
By Olin Chism
This was a powerful group of pianists, each of whom made a powerful impression. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, with jury chairman Leonard Slatkin conducting, made a strong contribution to the evening’s excitement.
One of the participants, Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea, played Rachmaninoff’s ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 3 and earned the loudest ovation from an audience that filled Bass Hall.
While the performance was underway, Muhammad Ali’s famous quote “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” came to my mind. This was because Sunwoo employed a very wide range of dynamics, from the softest soft to the loudest loud, in his interpretation. His performance became more effective as it went on, and the finale raised goose bumps.