Yekwon Sunwoo: 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.