Just when he might have thought he knew what life would be like for the next few months…24-year-old South Korean pianist Yekwon Sunwoo got The Call.
As “first alternate” for the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Sunwoo knew he would be contacted—and fast!—if any of the 30 chosen pianists had to drop out of the lineup. And in the first week of May, word came from Cliburn officials that a slot (in fact, two) had suddenly opened up. On May 8 it was officially announced that Sunwoo and another 24-year-old pianist, Russia’s Nikita Abrosimov, would be added to the field of competitors.
How did he feel about that? Sunwoo gives an honest but upbeat answer.
“I’d been preparing for the competition, but I wasn’t motivated much, and couldn’t fully concentrate,” says Sunwoo. “As the time for the competition approached, I kind of felt like giving up and moving on to the next thing. So, when I heard I would be going to the Van Cliburn after all, I did have mixed feelings. I was very happy to hear it, but hesitant and reluctant at the same time.
“However, I knew that I really wanted to do this, and I knew that I had nothing to lose. So then, I decided to take the invitation gladly, and to do my best [to be ready] in a short time period.”
A student at The Juilliard School since 2011, Sunwoo won first prize at the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition, and is a laureate of the 2010 Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Belgium. He has appeared with the Baltimore Symphony, the Orchestre National de Belgique, the Incheon Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, among others. He made his New York debut at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in 2009 (as winner of the first Florida International Piano Competition in 2008), and performed as a soloist with the Juilliard Orchestra at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 2012.
Beginning formal piano studies at age eight, Sunwoo recalls being “super excited every time I was assigned to play a new piece. I was so eager to learn it that I would run straight home.” He has a “hard time” choosing from among his many favorite composers, but adds: “I particularly love Schubert, because his music speaks with genuine sincerity, and is so painfully beautiful.”
He has spent more than one-third of his life in the United States, arriving at age 15 to study with renowned pianist Seymour Lipkin at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He struggled to learn English, he says, but thinks moving to America was worth it. “I’ve had such wonderful teachers and mentors, and I think living in the United States helped to open up my sound.”
Living in New York now, he enjoys checking out museum exhibits and new restaurants when he has time. (Midtown Manhattan’s “Koreatown” is a favorite haunt.) But most of all, he is happy to “hang out with friends, sit for coffee, or just chat casually to relax.”
Asked about favorite books and movies, he mentions (at length) his affection for the movie Hachi, the recent remake of a 1980s Japanese movie about a dog whose loyalty to his “human” lasts for years after the man’s death. (Richard Gere stars, and the movie has been a hit in many parts of the world, though it never had a U.S. theatrical release.)
“Some of my friends don’t get me, but I loved watching Hachi,” says Sunwoo. “I have a strong affection for dogs, and this movie showed the close personal relationship one can have. It was particularly poignant to see the dog’s unconditional loyalty.”
Is there anything “Texas” he’s dying to see or do? Frankly, he says, he doesn’t have time to think about that: “But I’m always up for barbecue!”
◊ Here is a video of Yekwon Sunwoo performing a Kreisler piece with violinist Benjamin Beilman:
Yekwon Sunwoo's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition Repertoire:
Preliminary Recital, Phase I
GRÜNFELD Soirée de Vienne, concert paraphrase on Strauss’ waltzes, op. 56
BEETHOVEN Sonata No.13 in E-flat Major, op. 27, no. 1 ("Quasi una fantasia")
SCHUBERT Fantasy in C Major, D. 760, op. 15 "Der Wanderer"
Preliminary Recital, Phase II
SCARLATTI Sonata in D Minor, K. 213
SCHUMANN Faschingsschwank aus Wien, op. 26
KIRCHNER Interlude II
RAVEL La valse
HAYDN Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:48
SMETANA Czech Dance No. 7: Hulan (“The Lancer”)
DVORAK Piano Quintet in A major, op. 81
BEETHOVEN Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, op. 73
RACHMANINOV Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30
◊ To see a slideshow of all of the competitors, with bios and links to our profiles of them, click here.