Author: Jill Kimball

Cliburn winner Yekwon Sunwoo heads to Boulder in November

Pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, 28, captured gold at the 2017 Cliburn and performs on the Artist Series this fall

To the untrained eye, it may seem as though Yekwon Sunwoo’s life revolves around the piano. But in point of fact, it revolves around pho.

When he’s at home, Sunwoo makes his own steamy noodle bowls. But when he’s on the road, he’s made it his mission to seek out a pho restaurant in each new city–an impressive goal, given he’s about to embark on a long international tour.

The 28-year-old is fresh off that three-week keyboard gauntlet also known as the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, where he captured the coveted gold medal. Soon, he’ll give recitals in cities all over the map–including at Boulder’s own Macky Auditorium.

The Cliburn, named after the Texan teen whose piano prowess brought the world together at the height of the Cold War, was founded 55 years ago. Since then, the quadrennial competition has welcomed promising young talent from all corners of the globe to Fort Worth, Texas, for an Olympic Games-like, no-holds-barred piano shootout. This year, each competitor performed before more than 4.5 million concert hall and online viewers for a chance to win $50,000, three years of representation and and a recording contract with Universal.

Over the course of three weeks, four rounds and six performances, Sunwoo proved his mettle with a diverse repertoire and nerves of steel. The clincher was his final chamber music performance, where his rendition of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 soared.

“His playing was crisp and effervescent, with crystalline trills,” proclaimed The New York Times. “In a work that demanded parity, he was an ideal foil.”

Sunwoo is the first Korean to win the Cliburn, which has lately been dominated by Chinese, Japanese and Russian-speaking pianists. He was born in Anyang, a suburb of Seoul, and spent most of his childhood there. At 15, he came to the U.S. to study at the Curtis Institute of Music, and then at the Juilliard School…and he hasn’t left since.

These days, Sunwoo is proud to call New York home. “I try to take advantage of it and just walk around the city,” he says. “I go to Central Park and see a lot of Broadway shows.”

When he’s not on the road, that is. In recent years, he’s performed as soloist with the Baltimore Symphony, The Juilliard Orchestra with Itzhak Perlman, the Houston Symphony Orchestra, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra with Leonard Slatkin and Nicholas McGegan, the National Orchestra of Belgium, the Sendai Philharmonic Orchestra and many others. He’s appeared in recital in Tokyo, London, Paris, Seoul and everywhere in between. In San Francisco, the Examiner praised “his total command over the [piano] and its expressiveness.” At a recital in Maryland, says the Washington Post, he “started out in a deceptively unassuming way and then quietly snuck up on greatness … offering technical brilliance set off by artistic sensibility.”

Sunwoo is about to set off on his Cliburn victory tour, where his playing is sure to raise more goosebumps and quietly steal more hearts.

“Sunwoo … seems to have music pouring out of his fingers,” says Clavier Companion. “His musicality and elegance—combined with an economical technique and multiple variations in tone and dynamic levels—are gaining him fans.”

Fast facts: Yekwon Sunwoo

Fast facts: Yekwon Sunwoo

Favorite color: Blue
Runs on: Lots of coffee
Worst habit: Sleeping in late
Loves to: Relax and hang out with friends
Food favorites: “I love pasta or anything with seafood, like shrimp. I love steaks too.”
Role models: His mom and two teachers from Juilliard
Least favorite instrument: “Tuba. Sorry.”

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