Soon after 28-year-old Yekwon Sunwoo won the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Decca Gold released a recording of his performances at the competition called Cliburn Gold, which became number one on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Album charts.
Those who live streamed or attended this year’s Cliburn Competition were bowled over by Yekwon Sunwoo’s dynamic playing, as were the jury members who awarded him a gold medal with its built-in perks that include three years of concert tours in the US and at international venues and fashion threads - concert attire supplied by Neiman Marcus which is reason enough to practice hours a day for a chance to compete!
Over the next few seasons and beyond, Sunwoo will appear with high-profile groups such as Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Elbphilharmonie, National Orchestra of Cuba, and perform at Aspen Music Festival, Istanbul Music Festival, Klavier-Festival Ruhr and the Gewandhaus in Leipzig.
Sunwoo’s playing was center stage even before his participation in The Cliburn Competition as evidenced by his winning the 2015 International German Piano Award, 2014 Vendome Prize at Verbier Festival and 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition. Already a seasoned performer, he has given recitals in South Korea, Europe, Costa Rica and appeared with major orchestras including the Houston Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, National Orchestra of Belgium.
He also concentrates on chamber music in collaboration with such artists as members of the Brentano and Jerusalem Strings Quartets, Ida Kafavian, Peter Wiley and released recordings with violinist Benjamin Beilman on the Warner Classics and Analekta labels.
He began piano studies in his native South Korea at age 8 and then relocated to the US in 2005 where he received a bachelor’s degree at The Curtis Institute of Music with Seymour Lipkin, a master’s degree at The Juilliard School with Robert McDonald and an artist diploma at the Mannes School of Music with Richard Goode. He currently studies with Bernd Goetzke in Hannover, Germany.
Yekwon Sunwoo talks about his career with Editor Leonne Lewis.
You studied in South Korea and at conservatories in the US. Have mentors of these schools influenced your approach to piano playing?
I feel extremely fortunate to have such wonderful teachers and they all share the same trait of being genuine and sincere musicians and warmhearted human beings. I am deeply saddened by Seymour Lipkin’s passing two years ago, but have fond memories of working with him at Curtis for six years beginning in 2005, when I was 16 years old. During the time I worked with him, I became more exposed to diverse music and he helped me open up my heart and play as if actually singing with my own voice.
After that, I went to Juilliard to work with Robert McDonald for two years. He has incredibly sensitive ears, which helped me become more attentive in listening to my own sound and the phrasing coming out as intended. Then, I went to study with Richard Goode at Mannes School of Music for two years. From time to time he would be away giving concerts, but whenever he was in town I would come to his house and play for him – and sometimes this went on for two or three hours.
He demonstrated a lot and it was sheer beauty to stand right next to him and hear him play, and I would feel as if I was reborn after each time. His whole life is faithfully dedicated to discovering the true intentions of each composer and I learned so much from him, like not taking every phrase each composer writes for granted.
In the Fall of 2016 I moved to Munich and currently study with Bernd Goetzke in Hannover. I’ve been working with him for just a year now but he has helped me to have more conviction in my music making and especially in shaping each phrase according to the requirements of the composer and understanding the whole structure in a more constructive way. I am forever grateful for guidance from all these teachers. They all made me love music even more deeply so that I can really bring out all emotions through piano playing.
You have won many international piano competitions. Does your approach change when playing for competitions or performing live concerts?
I believe strongly in not having a different thought process when performing in concerts or competitions. You are there to play your heart out and to share all kinds of emotions that are going through at every second of music making and hopefully convey them to audience members. The only difference might be in these two elements. First, you have to be even more focused and mentally strong when participating in a competition because you are under high pressure and there is the cruel fact that the announcement awaits after each round. Secondly, you are handling a huge amount of repertoire, so you need to understand your physical stamina and how to balance it all at once.
However, it is all about music making in the end and conveying your own interpretation with conviction. Seeking the composer’s intentions and putting all your endeavors into making the music come alive should be the main concern at all times.
Since winning The Cliburn Competition, what are some of your career and artistic goals?
Since I first started playing the piano when I was 8-years-old my ultimate dream has always been to become a concert pianist, travel all around the world and share all these feelings through music. Winning the 2017 Van Cliburn Competition has opened up a new chapter for me and this definitely helps my dream continue. I have a personal affinity towards German and Russian repertoire so I would like to focus more on this repertoire for now. Having performed works such as Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 6 and Thomas Ades Traced Overhead, I would also like to explore more contemporary works that are not yet often played. After winning the Van Cliburn Competition, I know that the exciting musical journey will continue.