Kevin Lee Sun

By Scott MacClelland

THE WINNER of the 2018 Carmel Music Society piano competition, Kevin Lee Sun, redeemed his winning solo recital on Sunday afternoon with an oddly arcane program, a gutsy move to be sure since the audience thinned out considerably at intermission. Yet this young man, who played his entire program from memory, certainly has the talent, skills and multi-award-winning performance track record with which to make a career—unless he chooses in favor of medicine instead. (Nice to have so many choices on your plate at age 25!)  

Arcane though it was, Sun’s program followed a certain logic. The first prelude and fugue from JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, whetted the ear, to be followed immediately by the Fantasia after JS Bach by Ferruccio Busoni, concocted in 1909. The piece references Bach’s use of three chorales, including “Christ, du bist der helle Tag” and  “Lob se idem allmächtigen Gott.”  But the most immediately recognizable was the advent carol “Gottes Sohn ist kommen,” whose melody, sung every Christmas season in a version known as “In dulce jubilo,” dates to the early 14th century and, for Bach and his contemporaries, was frequently harmonized as chorales. However, this conflation of Bach and Busoni is a pretentiously muddled affair—16 minutes in a performance that felt like 24, though no fault of Sun—appealing primarily to hot-shot virtuosi like Marc-André Hamelin whose glitz alone often carries the water for otherwise neglected piano composers of yesteryear. Frankly it’s a hard piece to take seriously; Bach barely rescues Busoni from himself. Sun, who plays with probing seriousness, should build his career on a sounder foundation.

(Meanwhile, I was dismayed and distracted by ushers seating late-comers into the auditorium ten minutes into the Busoni with noisy whispering, and, in the following Schubert, patrons making high-held cell-phone videos of the performance. Apparently, Sunset Center’s previously stated policies are no longer being enforced.)     

Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy, D760, also a muddle of form as the musical term ‘fantasy’ usually implies—in this case sonata comingled with theme and variations—vacillates between major and minor. Nominally based on the composer’s earlier song, Der Wanderer, the 20-minute bluster sounds like a forced amalgam of Schubert and Beethoven and suffers from a near-inability to find which of the many suggested endings is the right one. As a great and loving fan of Schubert, I find this piece about as non-idiomatic of the composer’s natural style as one could get, though Sun muscled up big-time for the occasion.

Sun’s piano teacher at Stanford, Thomas Schultz, had every reason to take pride in his pupil, including the inclusion on the program of Variations (1990) by Hyo-Shin Na, Schultz’s Korean-born wife and a fine composer on her own terms. Absent program notes for the concert, one had to catch the piece on the fly. It was based essentially on an angular pentatonic theme of Korean or Chinese character, and arguably was the most truly confident performance by the pianist. A high point of the program it fed ears hungry for something fresh and, in modern terms, original.

Brahms’ early Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 9, of 1854—Brahms was 21—is based on a the fourth of Schumann’s Bunte Blătter, (Album leaves) , and precociously mourns the untimely loss of his principal mentor. To close his recital, Sun chose the Romance No. 2 from Schumann’s Thee Romances, Op. 28, love-letters to his soon-to-be wife Clara just before her 21st birthday. Clara wrote to him on 1 January 1840 ‘… as your bride, you must indeed dedicate something further to me, and I know of nothing more tender than these 3 Romances, in particular the middle one, which is the most beautiful love duet.” As Brahms reminds us over and again, Schumann’s was one of the most original voices of the “romantic” 19th century.