2017 Cliburn winner: Korean roots, American training, German heart


Could Yekwon Sunwoo be more of a citizen of the world? The 29-year-old pianist grew up in Anyang, a South Korean city about three-fourths the size of Charlotte. He studied in the U.S. at Curtis Institute of Music, the Juilliard School and Mannes School of Music. And he conquered the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition by playing everything from French impressionism (Ravel’s La Valse) to fiery Russian blockbusters (Rachmaninov’s Second Sonata). Yet his heart rests, musically speaking, in…Germany?


“I love composers of all nationalities,” he says. “It’s been said Koreans have similar characters a little bit to Russians and Italians: They love to sing and share emotions. But when I listen to German music, it feels like home. It speaks to me more strongly and deeply.” That’s why he went to Munich to study in 2016 and expects to move to Berlin this spring.


You can hear his affinity for the German/Austrian piano tradition March 1 at Halton Theatre in his Charlotte Concerts debut: Franz Schubert’s Four Impromptus (D. 935), an arrangement of music from Richard Strauss’ opera “Der Rosenkavalier” by Percy Grainger, Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No. 2. He’ll also do Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12, but Liszt spent most of his life as a citizen of the Austria-based Habsburg Empire.


He shone in this repertoire at the Cliburn. Every semifinalist must pick a Mozart concerto, and he played the 21st with elegance and delicacy. He also chose a Haydn sonata for an early round, impressing judges with unflashy buoyancy and humor. Of course, he stormed through Rachmaninov’s massive Third Concerto in his final round.


So is he more of a whisperer or a thunderer, a keyboard introvert or extrovert?


“I think both styles come naturally to me. But what I enjoy most is intimate playing, something smaller-scale where you are not showing off your virtuosity. That’s where you create more magic. It feels like you’re at the keyboard by yourself, and nothing matters except you and the composer. Music is not only about making people more excited and affecting them in a big emotional way.


“Somebody might look at my (Cliburn) repertoire and say I had too many pieces everyone plays: ‘La Valse,’ the Rachmaninov sonata, Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata, a late Beethoven sonata. But you have to choose things you can connect with, and those were the pieces I felt closest to.”


His Cliburn Gold album from the competition reveals his versatility, and he has recorded Prokofiev’s violin and piano sonatas with the equally acclaimed Benjamin Beilman. But he has never recorded (and seldom performs) the father of the German keyboard tradition: J.S. Bach.


“To be closer to Bach, I’d have to play a lot more of his works and listen to many different genres, and I haven’t exposed myself to that yet. When I am recording, I have to believe I totally know what the music says. If you have even small doubts, you cannot record anything. One has to be harsh to get to the highest goal of music-making.”



Yekwon Sunwoo


The 2017 Cliburn winner plays Thursday, March 1, at 7:30 p.m. in Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Avenue, in the final outing of Charlotte Concerts’ 2017-18 season.


To learn more about that show, go here.


To see videos from his Cliburn-winning performances or hear him talk about music, go here.