Yekwon Sunwoo pauses to think about the impact of winning the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition last year.
“I had been very fortunate already to win a few competitions, and prizes,” the 29-year-old said. “But I don’t come from a wealthy family. After the Cliburn, your fees definitely get higher.”
Once every four years the Cliburn selects a winner, from hundreds of applicants and 30 finalists. A victory doesn’t guarantee future success in the industry, but it certainly helps.
Sunwoo, the contest's first South Korean winner, has won many other competitions—the Kapell, the Vendome at Verbier, the International German Piano Award — and each victory has boosted his profile — and kept his livelihood afloat.
“I’d win a competition, and then I could pay off the rent,” he says, with some modesty, about his successes. “Then my mom wouldn’t have to send me money.
“But so many of the competitions don’t get you anything except a title. I was 28 when I went to the Cliburn, so I was in the older category. It would have been my last competition.
“I give everything I’ve got in a competition. Getting ready—struggling with the scores—it’s really quite stressful. It’s a huge amount of repertoire.
“It’s still joyful, but when you play a concert you have this living experience. You can try different things. In a competition you are playing for the judges, and you have to pay more careful attention to the score.”
It took a long time to prepare for the Cliburn’s demanding requirements—the competitors play three full recitals (no overlapping works, including a new composition—last year it was by Marc-André Hamelin), a chamber music program, and two concertos. That’s almost a full season for most pianists.
“I started really concentrating in January,” he says, in advance of the May competition. “My friends kept saying I was going to burn out. I but didn’t want to have any regrets.”
In the early rounds, he did listen to the other competitors—with mixed results. “Everyone in the first round was playing the Hamelin ‘Toccata,’ and for that reason I listened, to get a sense of what they thought,” he says. “But it doesn’t really help: if they play well, you get discouraged. And if you don’t play well, you get discouraged. You have to have your own convictions.”
New England gets a couple chances to see Sunwoo this summer, in two of the area’s most high-profile venues. He performs on June 26 at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, collaborating with the Brentano Quartet. And he gives a solo recital at the Newport Music Festival July 12.
In both programs, he repeats repertory that helped him win the Cliburn. He performed with Brentano in the Cliburn chamber segment, and in Rockport will repeat the Dvorak A major piano quintet that they performed together.
In Newport’s solo recital, he revisits several works from the competition, including Hamelin’s devilish “Toccata,” Percy Grainger’s “Ramble” fantasy on a theme from Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” Ravel’s “La Valse,” and a Schubert Impromptu.
“It was a special evening, just sharing music with them,” he says of the competition performance with Brentano. “When you’re in a competition by yourself, you know there are jury members, and they will give you a score. But with a quartet, they are always feeling the music, and playing with them you do the same thing. It was a touching experience.”
Sunwoo has already had a chance to reverse roles. He judged a competition himself, this April—the same German International Piano competition that he previously won.
“I got to see for myself that nothing really matters except the music,” he says. “It’s personal. You cannot fake what comes from the composer, or from yourself. That experience made me realize I should focus on my own views, and to get at what the composer intended. You have to do that, and feel strongly about everything you play.”
This story was first published on WBUR's ARTery. The original has links to multiple performance videos.