South Korean Yekwon Sunwoo Wins Fifteenth Cliburn

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Review of Final Round
June 9 & 10, 2017
Bass Hall, Fort Worth

The 15th presentation of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition cemented its position as one of the most influential piano competitions in the world today. Attracting nearly three hundred pianists from across the globe the competition affirmed its status as a career defining opportunity.

On Saturday night, twenty eight year old South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo was awarded the coveted gold medal at Bass Hall in Fort Worth, Texas. Sunwoo receives a cash award of $50,000 and three years career management. At a post concert press conference, jury chair, Maestro Leonard Slatkin who also conducted the Fort Worth Symphony in the final-round concerti performances said, “It really was about who could sustain the rigors of first prize over the course of the next three years. They are going to do 100 concerts a year.” The silver medal was awarded to American Kenneth Broberg (23) and fellow American Daniel Hsu, (19) received the bronze award as well as the Steven de Groote Memorial Award for the Best Performance of Chamber Music and the Beverly Taylor Smith Award for the Best Performance of a New Work. Other finalists included Rachel Cheung, Yury Favorin and Georgy Tchaidze.

I arrived at the competition in the penultimate stages of the chamber music round and the concerti finals. This is the glitter end of all competitions when artist managers and entrepreneurs across the globe attend, hoping to discover new talent and audiences are filled with passionate opinions. But, for the jury and the competitors, much of the determination and conclusions were already in their formative closing stages. At a mid-week forum, fellow jury member Joseph Kalichstein said, “You get to know a lot about a person through a Mozart Piano Competition.”

In the two concert concerto performances, the repertoire chosen by the final six competitors was safe but demonstrated the indisputable technical competency of each artist.

In his performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Russian pianist Yury Favorin, negotiated the composer’s demanding and compelling contrary motion passages and arpeggio leaps. Favorin’s steadfast note-by-note reading did not incline towards the lightness or the humor redolent in this work. From his first distinctive articulation of the opening subject, Kenneth Broberg’s interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was a musical portrait that revealed an artist who possesses a nuanced craft, imagination and an ability to communicate the essence of the composer.

June 9, 2017. Yekwon Sunwoo from South Korea performs with conductor Leonard Slatkin and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra on Friday evening in the Final Round of The Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo Ralph Lauer)

Yekwon Sunwoo’s style in Piano Concerto No.3 by Rachmaninoff displayed a tenacious attachment to the rhythmic aspect of the work. Bold rather than romantic, declamatory rather than tender, Sunwoo’s reading demonstrated his power driven tendency.

In the following afternoon, Rachel Cheung’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 favored slower tempi that at times, halted the sense of the melody. The missteps in accuracy, most especially in the final movement distracted from a potentially convincing and sensitive performance.

In Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3, Georgy Tchaidze brought a mastery and vitality to the score. Tchaidze’s reliable technique revealed few flaws in competency. With three prizes in hand, Daniel Hsu’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 summarized the remarkable assets of a gifted pianist and artist who, despite not winning the gold medal is the one to one watch. Hsu’s high caliber performance, capped a remarkable celebratory few weeks of musical camaraderie, inquiry, and community engagement in Fort Worth that reached 4.3 million people through digital global networks.

Xenia Hanusiak is Regional Executive, World Federation of International Music Competitions. The Cliburn Competition is a member of the World Federation of International Music Competitions.

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About Author

Xenia Hanusiak is a cultural journalist and critic, essayist, poet, writer for stage, and festival curator whose work is published and performed across the globe. Informed by her practice as an opera singer and scholar, Xenia has given the world and country premieres of some of the most influential composers of our time including Kaija Saariaho, John Harbison, Elena Kats-Chernin and Zhang Xiaofu for some of the world’s leading festivals including the Next Wave Festival, (New York), Kennedy Center (Washington), Singapore Arts Festival, Gruppo Aperto Musica Oggi (Florence) and Beijing Music Festival. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing & Literature and, is a visiting scholar at Columbia University (New York), Peking University and Kookmin University (Korea). Her works for the stage include: the play Ward B; Un_labelled (Elena Kats-Chernin, Young Peoples’ Chorus of New York City); the libretto A thousand doors, a thousand windows (Melbourne International Arts Festival, Singapore Arts Festival); Earth Songs (Homart Theatre) and the dramatic monologue, The MsTaken Identity (Adelaide Festival of Arts/Australian String Quartet). Recent journalism publications include contributions on Laurie Anderson, Marina Abramovic, Anri Sala, Philippe Parreno, singers Dawn Upshaw, Kiri Te Kanawa, Leonard Cohen, composers Tan Dun, Nikko Mulhy, Lisa Gerrard and writers Clarice Lispector and Rita Dove.

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