FORT WORTH, TX – South Korea rules. At least Saturday in Fort Worth, where Yekwon Sunwoo, 28, a Curtis and Juilliard grad now studying in Germany, was awarded the coveted Gold Medal of the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
The victory — which rewards performance in all stages of the contest, not just the big final concerto — can only enhance the already formidable reputation of this nation as a mother lode of musical excellence.
“From a young age they really become attached to music,” Sunwoo said of his compatriots at a press conference after the awards ceremony in Bass Performance Hall.
“They have a good education. They work hard. The teachers in Korea now have studied abroad.”
Not that Americans were left in the dust. Kenneth Broberg, 23, a Minneapolis native studying at Park University in Missouri, took the Silver Medal. Daniel Hsu, 19, from the San Francisco Bay area, earned Bronze.
The latter pianist, who concluded the final round on Saturday with a dazzling performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, is already a nine-year Curtis veteran whose skill in software design has won him an award from Apple.
My guess is that Hsu will not quit his day job. This remarkable artist also picked up the Steven de Groote Memorial Award for the Best Performance of Chamber Music (as predicted in Musical Toronto) and the Beverley Taylor Smith Award for the Best Performance of a New Work (the new work being the Toccata on “L’homme armé” by jury member and noted virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin).
Discretionary awards for non-finalists went to Dasol Kim, 28, of South Korea; Leonardo Pierdomenico, 24, of Italy; and Tony Yike Yang, 18, of Canada. Yang was the youngest contestant in the field and surely will be heard from again.
Rachel Cheung, 25, of Hong Kong, won the Audience Award. About 20,000 enthusiasts voted.
For the cash value of these prizes in U.S. currency, you are cordially invited to consult www.cliburn.org. Jacques Marquis, the Montreal-born CEO of the contest, has taken great pains to stress that the real worth of a Cliburn gold is the ample agenda of engagements — and of course the glory – that accrues to the winner.
Not that any contestant merited less than honourable mention. Cheung, the lone female finalist, started the Saturday session with a poetic if proper account of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. One sensed a strong personality emerging in the searing central cadenza of the Andante con moto. Left-hand scalar work was assured.
Georgy Tchaidze did well in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Fearsome machine-age thunder was nicely balanced with episodes of moonlit romance. The bravura of the final minutes made clear that this 29-year-old Russian had not only technique but staying power.
Hsu’s Tchaikovsky was admirable and might in another competition have got him better than bronze. Rather than hammer out the warhorse relentlessly, he found lyrical inspirations that placed the grandiose elements in context.
Even the famous introductory theme had something of a convivial character, inviting us to listen, rather than issuing a command. Grace notes were graceful indeed, and the famous double octaves flew like the wind. Can the Allegro con fuoco finale be taken too quickly? Yes, but when the playing is as lithe as this, I am prepared to overlook a speeding violation or two.
Jury chairman Leonard Slatkin, who was also the conductor of the excellent Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in the final round, paused long and hard when asked whether he was surprised by the results.
“In discussions after the fact [discussion among judges is forbidden during the competition], we started talking about how it was really about who could sustain the rigours of the first prize over the course of three years,” Slatkin said. He was referring to the many engagements that come with Cliburn gold.
“We came to the realization that there was a possibility of burnout. So this was a factor.”
Then Slatkin added:
“I’m going to guess that it was a pretty close vote. There were some outstanding performances. It could have gone another way.”
Certainly there was no evidence of burnout in Sunwoo’s high-definition performance of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 on Friday. Did he feel afterwards that he had nailed it?
“Every time you play, you feel that you could have done better,” Sunwoo said in a thoughtful tone. “There is no one way, no perfection. But this is the beauty of making music.”
The Saturday session, like Friday’s, was broadcast in nearby Sundance Square. The public included a wedding party and costumed delegates to a Manga convention. A story is circulating about a spellbound passerby on Friday who was surprised to learn that all this wonderful music was being made about 100 metres away.
How many fans were following online or watching cinema simulcasts? Only so much precision is possible, but Marquis announced at the press conference that the 2017 Cliburn attracted 4.5 million views in 169 countries.
Worth a footnote: The 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition ended about 30 minutes before the Belmont Stakes began. A busy Saturday for Las Vegas bookmakers!
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