Pianist Yekwon Sunwoo

By Scott MacClelland

2017 VAN CLIBURN COMPETITION gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo—a musical name if ever there was one—dazzled the opening 92nd season of the Carmel Music Society. The thrust stage, deployed for the Sunday matinee, brought the concert grand piano fully into the same room as the audience, out from under the proscenium, which gave the recital a welcome intimacy throughout the auditorium.

Yekwon Sunwoo’s program went off the beaten path and, to my taste, most welcome for it. Out of the gate it began with a seven-minute “ramble” by Percy Grainger on the final love duet from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. It might have helped to know the operatic scene itself but, regardless, it did serve to show off the Korean-born artist’s splendid command of the instrument and, in the closing moments, a delicate touch that bordered on fragility. He gave the impression that he had a long and intimate relationship with this particular Steinway. He also swayed with the tempo-advice with which Grainger had clogged the margins of his manuscript. 

That liberty, with tempo and dynamics, would continue through the Four Impromptus, D. 935, by Franz Schubert. Composer Robert Schumann espied a full-fledged sonata among them, but Yekwon Sunwoo took the name—impromptu—to emphasize improvisation over form. His circumspect take on the four pieces added to the justification of his triumph in Ft. Worth, but I found it lacking in an individual vision of the music overall. These pieces were composed when Schubert knew that his end was nigh, suggesting an ominous shadow over the upbeat character of the music that never came into view. At 29, Yekwon Sunwoo is certainly entitled to grow artistically.

The Schubert lasted 37 minutes, exactly the same amount of time for the concluding Sonata in F Minor, Op. 5, by Brahms, a work I don’t recall ever hearing live in Carmel—or anywhere. In this case, the classical forms chastened the artist’s vision to produce an architecturally coherent survey of the five-movement work by a 20-year-old mature far beyond his years. In it, Brahms gave himself permission to quote from other sources, including Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in C Minor and the motto (FAE, “Frei aber einsam”) of his violinist mentor Joseph Joachim, all subtly woven in. Moreover, he turned an exposed love theme in the second movement into a funeral dirge—thanks the Beethoven—in the fourth movement, the implicit disappointment in love that tormented him lifelong. Yet as a composer Brahms was always able to rise above the personal into the universal, in spite of great pain. (His Alto Rhapsody is probably the most extreme example.) The compositional/contrapuntal virtuosity of the first movement and the last pages of the final movement under the Cliburn winner’s hands were breathtaking.

In short, Yekwon Sunwoo demurred to a master composer even younger than himself, to which I say—along with the audience’s standing ovation—bravo! His return to the CMS in February with the Brentano Quartet is on my calendar.

This keyboard artist, with few but pointed spoken remarks from the stage, served up an encore: the lyrical and haunting October from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons.