Here's how you win a world-class piano contest



You don’t take the gold medal in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, as Yekwon Sunwoo did last year, without massive musical chops.


But the victor, who comes to Halton Theatre March 1 to close the Charlotte Concerts season with a solo recital, had non-musical weapons in his arsenal: chocolate, bananas, caffeine and solitude.


The 2017 Cliburn was his fifth first-place triumph in a major competition in six years. He started with the 2012 William Kapell International, then triumphed at Sendai, Vendome and Frankfurt. At 29, a year before he’ll age out of most competitions – including the Cliburn – he has a routine that fits him like a tailor-made tux.


“To reduce stress, I try to avoid things that affect me emotionally,” he explains. “I try not to speak to too many people. My family knows they won’t hear from me. My mom’s upset about that, but she’s getting used to it.


“(On performance day), I sleep in a little bit, then practice for an hour or two. I play through the pieces at a slower tempo, to feel more comfortable with them. I take a short nap to refresh myself and get to the concert hall an hour and a half or even two hours beforehand. There I have bananas and chocolates, and I have to drink coffee. Caffeine doesn’t affect me (negatively), so I might have an espresso before the concert.


“I try not to listen to anyone else play. If they’re good, you become nervous. If they’re not good, you start to feel you have a better chance, and that’s bad for you. I try to think as though I’m not at a competition, to put myself mentally in a place where I’m there alone.”


Does he socialize with other competitors away from the concert hall? “No. The organizers provide host families for everyone, and those are distant from each other. So you don’t see the other players much, if you don’t want to.”


After two rounds of solo recitals, every competitor has to play a Mozart concerto with the Fort Worth Symphony. Those who advance choose a piano quintet from a short list — he picked Dvorak’s Second – and, if they reach the final round, another concerto, this time with venerable Leonard Slatkin conducting. (Yekwon chose Rachmaninov’s Third.) “Collaboration” gets boiled down to short discussions.


“I had limited time to rehearse with the Brentano String Quartet,” says the Cliburn’s first Korean-born gold medalist. “There was barely time to run through the piece. But sometimes you meet people for the first time and know you don’t need to be verbal. You have similar concepts about the composer, and you click in and accommodate each other. The Brentano was so flexible: Three of us did Dvorak’s second quintet, and they played differently for every one.


“Leonard Slatkin has amazing ears. He could pick out whatever I was doing in the Rachmaninov and follow me, rather than suggesting something different. Everyone who accompanies you wants to let you play the way you want and make you sound as good as you can. To know that gives you confidence.”


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.