Home » Stories » 'New Classical Tracks' features Cliburn gold medalist - Yekwon Sonwoo

Top 10 for Dec

'New Classical Tracks' features Cliburn gold medalist - Yekwon Sonwoo

Bookmark and Share

New Classical Tracks is a Syndicated Feature airing Nationally on Classical 24 & Statewide on Minnesota Public Radio. Listen to Julie Amacher's Feature with Yekwon Sonwoo.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT - Yekwon Sonwoo was a shy eight-year-old when the beauty of classical music and his competitive nature inspired him to dedicate his life to playing the piano. He's won numerous competitions over the past 20 years, but winning the Gold Medal at the International Van Cliburn Competition this past June has had the greatest impact.

"I've won quite a few competitions and I was really thankful and moved by it," Yekwon says. "But I think this is the only time that I had tears in my eyes and because it was, in a way, very tiring. But it felt like just a long journey and when it came to the end when they announced the winner was me, I just think I had a lot of things going through my head and just that got me emotional."

You've been working with several teachers over the years, and he went on to study at the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School of music. Was there a teacher who really marked a turning point for you?

Conductor Leonard Slatkin performs Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 with pianist Yekwon Sunwoo, gold medal winner of the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Ralph Lauer/Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

"For sure, Seymour Lipkin. He always encouraged me to go listen to all kinds of different types of music. He was a fan of Frank Sinatra, and he told me once that he has an amazing style of certain rubatoes. So he really encouraged me to go listen to live concerts and orchestras, and by doing that I was able to develop my own voice, and also analyze what to do."

As the gold medalist, Yekwon earned $50,000 in cash, three years of professional concert management, and his first recording was just released. It features several pieces he performed throughout the Van Cliburn competition. Many of these works will also be featured on his upcoming concert tours.

"So all of these pieces are my favorites, of course, but (Ravel's) La Valse, it has such emotional journey just from the beginning to the end," he says. "It goes from kind of a foggy atmosphere of waltz to insane crazy like with different layers of sonority. one could say it's a showy piece but I try to capture the Viennese aspect of the music. And that's actually one of my favorite of the recording."

Yekwon, who is your go-to composer? When you really just want to sit down at the piano and play something, who's the first composer that comes to mind?

"That would be Schubert. The Schubert 'Litanei,' is one of my favorite pieces. And also, whenever I hear his music, even when it's a happy tune, still there is sadness, and something like that stays in your heart a long time. For that reason I really love Schubert."n

Now I know that you're the first Gold medal winner of this competition from South Korea, has that become a source of pride for your homeland?

"I'm really honored to be the first South Korean to win the Van Cliburn Competition. And they kind of went like crazy I guess after I won the first prize and the concert that I have scheduled in December in Korea got sold out instantly and they like featured me on major news, headline news many times."

To hear more about Yekwon Sunwoo and his path to winning the Gold Medal at the International Van Cliburn piano competition, download the extended podcast of New Classical Tracks from iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

You can enter for a chance to win a copy of this week's featured CD on New Classical Tracks. Winners will be drawn at random. Be sure to enter by 9 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017.