Han Chen

Cliburn Preliminary Round 9

Reviews of the ninth preliminary round at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Tony Yike Yang, Yekwon Sunwoo, and Han Chen.

published Sunday, May 28, 2017

Reviews of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Preliminary Round 9 (10 a.m. Sunday, May 28). You can see bios and complete repertoire of all pianists here.

See links to all of our reviews that have posted here.



Canada, 18


BEETHOVEN Sonata No. 30 in E Major, op. 109
HAMELIN Toccata on “L’homme armé”
PROKOFIEV Sonata No. 7 in B-flat Major, op. 83


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Tony Yike Yang


Tony Yike Yang impressed when he appeared in the First Cliburn International Junior Piano Competition two years ago, where he made it to the quarterfinals. He was 16. Here he is two years later and is much better pianist. He still bounces up and down on the bench and employs dramatic body language.

The programmed Beethoven sonata followed his writing of the monumental Hammerklavier sonata Op. 106. In the current sonata, Beethoven took a much more relaxed approach and made the third movement set of incredibly varied variations the focal point of the entire sonata. He did this with all his late works.

Yang caught our attention right away with a lovely presentation of the opening. Occasionally, his two hands were at the same volume when one needed to accompany the other. His performance was nicely nuanced and impeccably played, but as it went on, he achieved tutta forza long before it was needed.

Yang took the modernist route with the Hamelin and made the virtuoso parts the raison d’être. Right from the start he took a different path by delaying the final chord, dramatic but not how it is written. In his hands, it was very noisy and exceptionally fast. He blurred whole phrases holding down the sustaining pedal for large swaths of the piece, especially towards the note explosion near the end. It certainly was an original take and it was validated, I guess, by the rapturous audience reaction.

I’m not saying he was wrong. The beauty of music is that it, when well played, is rarely wrong. Just like all reviews, it is just one opinion.

Prokofiev’s seventh sonata has already been played in the competition. It is one of his so-called war sonatas written in 1943. With all the glorification of Stalin, many think he was expressing his true feelings about the tyrant.

The first movement is a subtle dig at classical sonatas. Yang started off at a very fast tempo and eventually unleashed the fireworks and delivered a finely crafted performance. As with many of the contestants, he was at full volume long before he would need it, so it was just some more loud music when it occurred. It was the same story all the way through. He has a magnificent technique and sound musical ideas that will serve him well once he calms down.




South Korea, 18


HAYDN Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:48
HAMELIN Toccata on “L’homme armé”
SCHUBERT-LISZT Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen
RACHMANINOFF Sonata No. 2 in B-flat Minor, op. 36 (1931)


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Yekwon Sunwoo


Yekwon Sunwoo did quite well at the 2013 Cliburn and made the semifinal round. It is always interesting to hear these pianists four years later.

He still has his sense of the music and showed it to his advantage in the Haydn. He kept an eye on historically correct practices but didn’t restrain himself from some well-placed rubato where it worked nicely. One attribute that particularly impressed was his use of the runs, which he incorporated into the music like it was ornamentation and not an end unto itself.

With the Hamelin, he discovered some places to make a short resolution at the end of some phrases rather than charging on. He took a leisurely approach. With the two sequential builds, he restrained the top of the first one so he could let loose in the last one.

Schubert’s song, “Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen,” just looks like another song on paper and a single page of music with three verses at that. But in performance it becomes a testament to consolation and its joyful response. It has elements of Bel Canto mixed with Schubert’s own gift for melody. So, it was an attractive target for Liszt’s love of arranging existing songs or arias, well known to his audiences, for treatment suitable for his recitals.

Sunwoo tried to take the original song into consideration as he played Liszt’s arrangement and it brought some authority that is missing in some performances.

We have to remember that Rachmaninoff wrote the bulk of his compositions while still in Russia. This sonata dates from 1913, but he reworked it in 1931 and said that we should use this version that he “revised and reduced.”

Sunwoo floated the melody over the subdued accompaniment. It was quite entrancing, even better when it moved to a lower voice (like a cello) and best when he played it in octaves. It could have been a Chopin in octaves. The second movement had some parts that dragged. It gets a lot of sound and color, but he tends to over play. He woke us up from the reverie he created in the second movement with an energetic start to the last one, even though it reuses some of the previous material. He brought it to an exciting close even though he reached top volume before its time and took the brilliant coda at the edge of too fast.




Taiwan, 25


CARTER Caténaires (2006)
RACHMANINOFF Étude-tableau in G Minor, op. 33, no. 8
RACHMANINOFF Étude-tableau in C-sharp Minor, op. 33, no. 9
HAYDN Sonata in D Major Hob.XVI:42
HAMELIN Toccata on “L’homme armé”
LISZT Réminiscences de Don Juan


Photo: Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn
Han Chen



I have to admit that I am torn about the appearance of the Carter piece. While I am glad to finally see some music of our time on the program (other than the Hamelin), and I am certain that it is immaculately constructed and a wonder to see diagrammed, it sounds like a randomly chosen pile of notes played very quickly to me.

Chen gave the Carter an astounding performance because he kept the motto perpetuo undercurrent steady and at a remarkably fast tempo. But for me, the most impressive part was that he memorized it.

Rachmaninoff wrote two sets called Étude-tableau. Chen played one from each set. The first was the eighth from Op. 33 and the other one is ninth. He kept the melancholy legato line consistent even though it goes through some significant changes. In observance of their proximity in the publication, he paused only slightly before beginning the other one. Here, we have the other side of Rachmaninoff that is in the Lisztian tradition. He played it with impressive technical prowess and some drama tossed in, such as throwing his hands in the air at the end.

The Haydn sonata is part of a three-sonata set. Plain and simple appearing, they are fine and well-constructed works. Chen gave them an appropriately serious performance without stifling Haydn’s music with solemnity. The most outstanding movement was the last one, which is very fast and over before you know it.

He used the steely fingers he displayed to such advantage in the Carter to the other contemporary piece on his program, the Hamelin. He played it in waves of sound that he connected with the sustaining pedal. He overplayed the ending, but that is nothing surprising.

Chen gave us another one of Liszt’s dreadful opera parodies, and one we’ve already heard in this competition, of Mozart’s masterpiece, Don Giovanni. As I have mused before, I continue to wonder at their inclusion in competitions, which is the only place you ever hear them (thankfully). Chen gave it as good an outing as you can possibly get with this piece and made some music whenever it came along.





See links to all of our reviews that have posted here.

See the schedule of preliminary performances here.


  • Thursday, May 25: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, May 26: 10 a.m., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, May 27: 10 a.m., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
  • Sunday, May 28: 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.



  • Monday, May 29: 10 a.m., 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.
  • Tuesday, May 30: 10 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.



  • Thursday, June 1: 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, June 2: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. 
  • Saturday, June 3: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. 
  • Sunday, June 4: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. 
  • Monday, June 5: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. 



  • Wednesday, June 7: 7:30 p.m.
  • Thursday, June 8: 7:30 p.m.
  • Friday, June 9: 7:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, June 10: 3 p.m.


  • Saturday, June 10: 7 p.m.
 Thanks For Reading

Dates, Prices, & Other Details

View the Article Slideshow

Comment on this Article

Share this article on Social Media
Click or Swipe to close
Cliburn Preliminary Round 9
Reviews of the ninth preliminary round at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition: Tony Yike Yang, Yekwon Sunwoo, and Han Chen.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

Share this article on Facebook
Tweet this article
Share this article on Google+
Share this article via email
Click or Swipe to close
views on theater, dance, classical music, opera and comedy performances
news & notes
reports from the local performing arts scene
features & interviews
who and what are moving and shaking in the performing arts scene
season announcements
keep up with the arts groups' upcoming seasons
listen to interviews with people in the local performing arts scene
media reviews
reviews and stories on performing arts-related film, TV, recordings and books
arts organizations
learn more about the local producing and presenting arts groups
performance venues
learn more about the theaters and spaces where the arts happen
keep up with fabulous ticket giveaways and other promotions
connect to local arts crowdfunding campaigns
post or view auditions and performing arts-related classes, services, jobs and more
about us
info on TheaterJones, our staff, what we do and how to contact us
Click or Swipe to close
First Name:
Last Name:
Date of Birth:
ZIP Code:
Your Email Address:
Click or Swipe to close
Join TheaterJones Around the Web

Follow Us on Twitter

Subscribe to our Youtube Channel

Click or Swipe to close
Search the TheaterJones Archives
Use any or all of the options below to search through all of reviews, interviews, features and special sections. If you are looking for a an event, use the calendar section of this website. This search will not search through the calendar.
Article Title Search:

Description Search:
TheaterJones Contributor:

TheaterJones Section:

Showing on or after:      Showing on or before:  
Click or Swipe to close
We welcome your comments

I am discussing:  

Your Name:
Your Email Adress:

please enter the text below and then click or tap SUBMIT :