Yekwon Sunwoo comes to Boulder

His luggage includes weighty sonatas by Schubert and Rachmaninoff

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Yekwon Sunwoo Gold Medalist 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition
Jeremy Enlow/Cliburn

Pianist Yekwon Sunwoo always travels with his music.

“Even if I know the piece well,” he says. While on tour, he adds, “I try to go back to the score and look closely, hoping that I’m not forgetting anything.”

The Gold Medal Winner of the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, Sunwoo comes to Boulder on Friday, Nov. 3 for a solo recital in Macky Auditorium. His luggage will include two weighty sonatas — the Sonata in C minor D958 of Schubert, and Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor — as well as two pieces that are easier to carry around, if not to play — Percy Grainger’s rare “Ramble on the Last Love-duet” and Ravel’s La Valse.

Even before he entered the Cliburn Competition, Sunwoo was a contest winner several times over. He won first prizes at the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition, the 2014 Vendôme Competition and the 2015 International German Piano Award Competition, among others. But it was the Cliburn Competition that really launched his career.

That’s because first prize at the Cliburn Competition includes the concert tour that brings Sunwoo to Boulder, plus a recording contract and professional representation. Launching careers, he says, is one aim of the Cliburn. “Right from the beginning, they try to see the pianist who can really build up a career,” he says.

“In some competitions, even if you win first prize nothing is guaranteed — some of them don’t give concert opportunities. That’s the reason the Cliburn Competition was very competitive.”

While some pianists have a competition repertoire designed to impress the judges, Sunwoo did not do anything different for the Cliburn jurors. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, this piece is not good for the competition, this (other) piece is better,’ but I really wasn’t thinking about anything differently. I programmed everything I would do in my recital programs.”

The first half of his program for Macky is filled by a single large work, Schubert’s C-minor Sonata, the first of three sonatas Schubert wrote shortly before his death. “The C-minor is lesser known, compared to the last two,” Sunwoo says.

“I particularly love this work, because it has such a very dark side of Schubert, but at the same time the second movement is prayer-like and takes me to another place. This sonata also resembles Beethoven’s musical style, particularly the Pathétique Sonata.”

After an intermission, he will play “Ramble on the Last Love-duet,” based on a theme from Richard Strauss’ opera Der Rosenkavalier by the eccentric Australian composer Percy Grainger. After a gentle opening that reminds Sunwoo of “a sunset on the ocean,” the piece becomes rhapsodic and virtuosic.

“If you look at the score you can see that he’s quite particular and I guess you could say eccentric,” Sunwoo says. As complex as the instructions become, he tries to observe them all because “it really creates magic, if you follow [them].”

The other two pieces are more familiar: Rachmaninoff’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, and the piano version of Ravel’s La Valse. Unlike Ravel, Rachmaninoff was a virtuoso pianist who wrote mostly for his own performances and began composing his Second Sonata in 1913, while  living in Rome, in a house where Tchaikovsky had once stayed. While he had to leave Rome before completing the sonata, the symbolism was clear: Rachmaninoff represented the continuation of the Russian musical lineage.

“It’s a very virtuosic piece but what I try to bring out is a musical structure,” Sunwoo says. “There’s a lot of drama, so it’s one of my favorite works, and one I’ve played quite often.”

A musical deconstruction of the Viennese waltz, La Valse was written for the ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev. Diaghilev, however, disliked the music. He never produced the ballet, and today it is mostly performed as a concert piece for orchestra. It has a nebulous quality that reflects Ravel’s own description of the music, which began “Swirling clouds afford glimpses, through rifts, of waltzing couples.”

“It’s such a joy to play. Right from the beginning you see the Viennese waltz, then toward the end it goes very crazy, so it’s very captivating.”

Finally, Sunwoo has some modest advice for his listeners. “When people come, I would tell them to sit back and don’t think about anything else. There are so many different emotions in the music, and I try to express and convey those emotions to the audience.

“Hopefully I will transfer those emotions and they can be conscious of those feelings in their hearts.”

On the Bill:  Yekwon Sunwoo, piano, Van Cliburn Gold Medal Winner. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder. Tickets: 303-492-8008, cupresents.org/events.