Yekwon Sunwoo, 24, South Korea
Yekwon Sunwoo, from South Korea, was quite spiffy in a sharp black tux with a pocket square. His first selection was also quite spiffy, Grünfeld’s Soirée de Vienne, a concert paraphrase on Strauss’ Waltzes, op. 56. This is a delightful potpourri of a few waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr. It is interspersed with virtuosic flourishes but, unlike Liszt’s similar concoctions, doesn’t bury the waltzes in a junk-pile of superfluous notes.
Sunwoo played it with a great sense of fun and took just as much amusement in the piece as the composer intended. There were still plenty of technical feats to admire among the bonbons. It was a perfect program opener.
Beethoven’s Sonata No.13 in E-flat Major, op. 27, no. 1 ("Quasi una fantasia") was another inspired choice to present Sunwoo to his best advantage. Technically in four short movements, they are played without a pause, and offer a wide variety of Beethoven’s musical styles. The composer was only six years older than Sunwoo when he wrote this piece so there is a lot of youthful exuberance for him to explore. Beethoven was just beginning to break out of his classical moorings and he was on the verge of his earth-shaking middle era. Thus, this sonata and a similar companion in the op. 27 are experiments in form.
The movements are out of traditional order and the piece starts with a slow movement and a theme that has to sound out over repeated chords. Sunwoo did a fine job of floating the lyrical melody while keeping the chords both even and underneath. Beethoven loved to surprise, even shock (maybe wake up), his listeners by sudden dynamic shifts—sudden loud passages in the middle of something soft. Once again, Sunwoo captured this quirk of the composer to great effect. Later, when the two hands are asked to do different things, his left hand staccato and right hand legato was perfect. When Beethoven returns to his first movement materials in the end, Sunwoo made them sound fresh.
Schubert’s Fantasy in C Major, D. 760, op. 15, "Der Wanderer" is based on one of the composer’s songs (“Der Wanderer,” of course). It is probably the most difficult music Schubert ever wrote for the piano. In addition to its technically forbidding writing, the four movement movements don’t end but morph into each other with a variation of the song, sometimes literally and other times radically speeded up, as transition.
Even though it felt long, Sunwoo did his best to tie it all together. His sense of tempo was sure throughout, as was his technical command. He slightly overplayed some of loud lower notes, causing the piano to twang. Another problem with this piece is the many times it feels like it is ending, but then goes on. Here, Sunwoo fell into Schubert’s trap and without compete familiarity or a score in your hands, there were many times it felt like it was going to end.
We would have taken any of them.
Sean Chen, 24, USA
Sean Chen has Justin Bieber hair. For those of you older than 15, Bieber is a pop star with limited talent but an overabundance of cute; and maybe if you’re in the aforementioned age bracket, a comparison to Rod Blagojevich’s hair is in order. Fortunately, Chen is blessed with great abilities as well as tonsorial splendor. He was dressed in a dark suit and white shirt but, in a nod to youthful rebellion, left his collar open.
He’s 24, and already this American shooting star has a wall full of prizes. He took second place at the 2011 Seoul International Music Competition, the top prize at the 2010 Gina Bachauer Piano Competition and Best Performance of an American Work Prize at the 2009 Cleveland International Piano Competition. Seeing him perform, there’s little wonder that he is so successful. He has stage presence without overdoing it and amazing technique. He also overflows with confidence, but without a trace of arrogance to contaminate his personality. The fact that he programmed Beethoven’s unplayable Hammerklavier sonata for his second round underlines his self-assurance.
In this program, he picked four selections that, at first glance, do not fit together. However, in execution, his program was nearly perfect: Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816, which is demanding in its precision; followed by Bartók’s extremely difficult and highly dissonant Three Études, op. 18; then Chopin’s Three Mazurkas, op. 59, acting as a pleasant respite before plunging into Scriabin’s thorny Sonata No. 5, op. 5.
Much was expected of Chen—and he delivered.
In the Bach, he observed all of the repeats, adding some minor embellishments; more would have been welcome to keep interest and create some anticipation of what he would do next. However, he played Bach in a manner that would please the musicology purists, while still making use of the abilities of the modern piano. He barely used the sustaining pedal but added some dynamics that would have been impossible on the harpsichord, but which greatly increased the possibilities of demonstrating his musicianship. Some of the fast movements felt rushed, such as the Courante, but he held the very quick Gigue that ends the suite steady. The Sarabande ably showed his ability to use finger legato to spin a long melody.
The Bartók is well-known among pianists for its formidable demands and musical austerity. For this reason it is not played that often, as few can play it as they want to hear it. However, in Chen’s hands, it won many new fans. The first has finger-stretching ninths and tenths, usually played broken. It was hard to tell how Chen played them because of the finesse of his technique. The second is a study in sonorities, with rolling irregular arpeggios. Chen kept the melodic material front and center and combined a light touch with some big playing without distorting the texture. The third is fast and furious, with a workout for the left hand and quick hand-crossing for the right. Chen was impressive in mastering all of the challenges and the audience responded with great applause.
The Scriabin was previously played to great effect, and it greatly impressed in Chen’s hands as well. It is a difficult work to play and dissonant in the extreme. In fact, there isn’t a single consonant chord or any perfect cadence to be found. Yet, it is exciting and never fails to please an audience as it did here. Chen reveled in the sudden changes and juxtaposed contrasts and played them to maximum effect.
It was an impressive performance, and we all look forward to hearing him play the Beethoven Hammerklaivier.
Fei-Fei Dong, 22, China
Fei-Fei Dong was gorgeous in a stunning black silk dress with spaghetti straps—for safety—over bare shoulders. The dress was enhanced with elaborate embroidery on the bodice that wrapped around on the waist to one side. She sat high to the piano, but this required that she lean way over; sometimes her head appeared to cross the fingerboard space and move into the harp.
She played as beautifully as she looked with a relatively conservative program—until she let loose at the end. Clementi’s Sonata in F-sharp Minor, op. 25, no. 5, received a highly appropriate performance with all historical performance practices scrupulously observed. Further, she seemed to be enjoying playing it.
Schumann’s Novelette in F-sharp Minor, op. 21, no. 8, was not as successful. It was overplayed and overwrought. Chopin’s pleasant Rondo in E-flat Major, op. 16, is a fine piece but not what you would expect for a competition. It wasn’t until she played Liebermann’s Gargoyles, op. 29, that she really came into her own.
Too often, her excessive body movements and heavenward, ecstatic facial expressions were distracting. Her performance was more enjoyable when you didn’t look at the large projection screen. Part of this might have been her run-of-the-mill selections. When she got to the Liebermann, she was a pianist transformed. She dug into the composer’s demands, even to the point of rising off of the bench for added force. She brought the audience to its feet at the end with the electricity she created in this outstanding performance. More works like this, say the Stravinsky Petrushka for example, would make her practically unbeatable in any competition.