Author: Kelly Dean Hansen

DAILY CAMERA: Van Cliburn winner performs at CU Boulder’s Macky Auditorium

Yekwon Sunwoo already had a stellar pianistic pedigree before winning the gold medal at the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition last June. The South Korea native came to the United States in 2005 at age 16. In succession, he studied with Seymour Lipkin at the Curtis Institute of Music, Robert McDonald at the Juilliard School and Richard Goode at New York’s Mannes College.

Last year, he moved to Germany, where he currently studies with Bernd Goetzke, who himself was the last student of the great Italian pianist Arturo Michelangeli.

“I’m grateful to have had a variety of different national influences and musical styles in my instruction,” Sunwoo said in an interview.

He performs on Friday at Macky Auditorium as part of the CU Presents Artist Series, which always brings the winner of the quadrennial competition to Boulder the following fall. “I’ve been fortunate to win quite a few competitions, but the Cliburn is the big one,” Sunwoo said. “The gold medalist is guaranteed to have a lifelong concert career right after winning.”

Indeed, 1997 and 2001 winners Jon Nakamatsu and Olga Kern are still going strong. Both performed in Boulder this year with the Boulder Philharmonic and Colorado Music Festival, respectively. Sunwoo said that the “brutal” competition schedule prepares the pianist for real life as a concert performer, and that carries into the tour that follows. “The competition tries to identify who really has what it takes to be a touring pianist,” he said.

While Sunwoo is the first Korean to win the Cliburn gold, two previous Korean competitors won the silver. “We do well because so many of our teachers studied abroad in various countries,” he explained. “They come back and transport what they have learned to a younger generation.”

Sunwoo said that a part of Korean culture is that if one person excels at a given field, somehow everyone else improves rather quickly. “There is a lot of motivation and inspiration to reach a higher goal a little quicker than usual,” he said.

For Friday’s Macky concert, Sunwoo devotes the first half to one of the three great last piano sonatas by Franz Schubert, D. 958 in C minor. “Schubert is one of my favorite composers,” he said. “I wanted to put the sonata by itself, and I thought that it would be more emotional to open the recital with it rather than put it at the end.” He said that the whole sonata is a dark but heartfelt journey with a lot of contrasting characters.

The second half of the program features works included on the Decca Gold recording of Sunwoo’s live solo performances from the competition, which was released in August. They include Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata No. 2 (in the revised version of 1931) and the solo piano version of Maurice Ravel’s “La valse,” which is better known as a lavish orchestral piece. The Ravel will close the evening.

These two works are preceded by a curious and highly individual arrangement by the mercurial Australian-born composer Percy Grainger of Richard Strauss operatic music. Grainger’s title gives a good idea of his compositional attitude: Ramble on the last Love-duet from Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.”

“I came across it and was really taken with it,” Sunwoo said. “Grainger is really particular about what he wants you to do — like holding the middle pedal to sustain bass notes while playing the Strauss harmonic progressions — but really it’s a charming love piece.”

The Rachmaninoff sonata is a mature work, especially in the revised version. Sunwoo is close to the composer, having played the Third Concerto in the Cliburn final. He said that his favorite part of the sonata is the yearning, passionate second movement, but the whole thing is typical Rachmaninoff, full of drama, character and strong emotions along with a disciplined formal outline.

As for the Ravel, Sunwoo said that those who know the orchestral version will still find much to enjoy in the piano solo arrangement. “The waltz rhythm keeps going and building and those layers of sound are still present in the piano version,” he said. “It’s very different from a Chopin waltz or any other typical dance music for piano.”