3 Cliburn Winners Showed More Than Flashy Technique

Yekwon Sunwoo of South Korea performs with conductor Leonard Slatkin and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in
the final round of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Bass Performance Hall. (Photo by Ralph Lauer)
By Kyle MacMillan

FORT WORTH, Tex. — American conductor Leonard Slatkin long had doubts about music competitions. He saw them as anti-musical and unfair. “The Cliburn has taught me just the opposite,” he said June 10 in Bass Performance Hall at the awards ceremony for the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. It was a change of heart that came after he headed a nine-member jury that spent 2½ weeks exhaustively narrowing down a group of 30 pianists (chosen from an initial pool of 290 applicants) to the final three prize winners.

Competitors try on cowboy hats during orientation. (Ralph Lauer)

Established in 1962, the Cliburn Competition is named after the famed pianist who against all odds won Moscow’s Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition at the height of the Cold War in 1958 and became the only classical musician to receive a ticker-tape parade in New York City. With the support of the Texas virtuoso until his death in 2013, it has evolved into one of the best-known piano contests, drawing highly talented pianists ages 18 to 30 from around the world.

During a symposium, the jurors discussed what they hoped to hear from the competitors, and it quickly became clear that they were more interested in intangibles than specific criteria. “I don’t want pianists who play it safe,” said Slatkin, who conducted the two final concerto rounds of the competition with the Fort Worth Symphony. “I like pianists who take chances.” In an interview later, he pointed to esteemed soloists from the past like Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, and Arthur Rubinstein. “They were great pianists because they did things that made them distinctive from each other,” he said. “They make us think about the music and listen to it in a different way. To me, that’s what makes any musician outstanding, that they have this presence that raises them above everybody else.”

Gold medalist Yekwon Sunwoo gets a hug from his host, Kay Duggan.

Juror Joseph Kalichstein said during the symposium he was not looking for any one approach or quality but something larger. “We’re all looking for truth with a capital T,” he said. “But we know there is more than one of those. You try to hear a totality.” Juror Mari Kodama said that it is important to consider whether the contestant has the personal character and artistic make-up to handle the barrage of concerts that will come the winner’s way in both the short and long term. “We also have to think about the future,” she said.

Whatever criteria they used, the nine jurors were not allowed at any point to discuss the competitors or their performances, and their computer-tabulated votes were secret. Slatkin suggested at a press conference immediately after the awards ceremony that he suspected the voting was very close, but even he had no way of knowing for sure. With all that in mind, the three winners of the competition were:

Gold medal, $50,000: Yekwon Sunwoo, 28, South Korea. One of the oldest competitors, Sunwoo was also among the most experienced, having won first prize at several other contests, including the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition; he has also performed with several major orchestras including the Baltimore Symphony. He highlighted the penultimate evening of the final round with a spine-tingling, wonderfully immersive take on Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, that was arguably the best of the six concerto performances. Three competitors chose to perform Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, in the chamber-music round, but his playing offered the most in terms of authority, energy, and drive.

Kenneth Broberg from the United States was the cover medalista. (Carolyn Cruz)

Silver medal, $25,000: Kenneth Broberg, 23, United States. A native of Minneapolis, Broberg is a graduate student working with 2001 Cliburn gold medalist Stanislav Ioudenitch at Park University in Parkville, Mo., and clearly that guidance paid off. I was underwhelmed with Broberg in both of the final rounds, but it must be remembered that the results took into account all of his performances throughout the competition. His take on the Dvořák Piano Quintet seemed tentative, with too much deference to the Brentano String Quartet and no real connection between him and them. Though some of my fellow music critics were more favorably inclined, his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43, struck me as overly restrained and not particularly compelling or fresh.

Bronze medal, $15,000: Daniel Hsu, 19, United States. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Hsu was accepted at age 10 to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he studies with Gary Graffman and Eleanor Sokoloff. In 2016, he was named a Gilmore Young Artist. Hsu was at his best in the chamber-music round, performing a passionately involved, wonderfully communicative performance of Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor, one in which it felt like he was pushing the Brentano to lift its level of playing. It came as no surprise that he also won the $6,000 award for best chamber-music performance. Hsu concluded the final round with an appealing take on Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23, brimming with flash and flying fingers.

Bronze medalist Daniel Hsu with the Brentano String Quartet. (Carolyn Cruz)

To be crowned the winners, these three young pianists had to put in an enormous amount of work in advance, including the preparation of three different recital programs, each lasting from 45 to 60 minutes in length. Once they arrived at the competition, they had to endure non-stop competitive pressure, with performances every few days plus practices, rehearsals, and a range of auxiliary events. It all added up to a draining process.

“It was great,” Sunwoo said, “because I had a lovely host family and they were very wonderful. So, it really felt you were relaxing although you were practicing quite a bit. And when you play at Bass Hall, the audience members were very welcoming and generous and very enthusiastic about each individual competitor, and you can really feel that. So, as much I could, I tried to think of it as a concert rather than competing. Of course, you still have that in your head, and that is frustrating sometimes, but that was my strategy.”

Paul Black paints piano keys on Commerce Street (Ralph Lauer)

To say that the Cliburn Competition is a big deal in Fort Worth – the little sister to nearby Dallas with a population of just over 800,000 – would be a big understatement. Banners, crosswalks painted like piano keyboards, and other references to the competition were ubiquitous, and a giant screen in the city’s downtown plaza presented competition performances as they were happening in Bass Performance Hall. After the awards ceremony, Mayor Betsy Price joined Cliburn officials and the three competition winners in that same plaza for a public celebration.

Speaking with the classic Texas drawl one would expect, Price said that during the 2½ weeks of the Cliburn Competition, the cow town of Fort Worth became “Pianotown.” And it was obvious that she was equally proud of each of those two historical facets of her city. The buzz extended much further as well. Jacques Marquis, the competition’s president and chief executive officer, noted during the awards ceremony that the Cliburn concerts had already reached 4.5 million views worldwide via medici.tv.

Despite this immediate enthusiasm, there are skeptics of music competitions much like Slatkin was. Critics argue they are more about technical razzle-dazzle and one-upmanship than genuine music-making, and that they cause some pianists to change the very way they play to try to fit what they think the jurors will want to hear. Others are concerned about the extreme emotional and physical stress such events put on the contestants.

Rachel Kudo, right, of the United States, leaves backstage with mom Maria Harman.

The jurors and leadership of the Cliburn Competition discussed some of these issues during symposia June 9 and 10, perhaps not surprisingly coming down for the most part on the side of competitions. Christopher Elton, one of the nine jurors, made clear that competitions are not the only way into a major solo career. He ought to know, because he was of two teachers of the celebrated 24-year-old British classical pianist Benjamin Grosvenor at London’s Royal Academy of Music; Grosvenor never took part in an adult competition, but in 2011 he became the youngest British musician ever signed to the Decca label. Yet Elton said he still believes competitions are very important: “This competition will launch a career.” And Arnoldo Coen, who received first prize in 1972 at the prestigious Busoni International Piano Competition, said that he probably wouldn’t even have been serving as Cliburn juror if not for that win.

As to what the future holds for the three winners of this year’s competition, it’s impossible to know. Past Cliburn prize recipients Radu Lupu, Barry Douglas, Olga Kern, and Joyce Yang have gone on to achieve top-level international careers. And some  finalists who did not medal have enjoyed considerable success, such as Jeffrey Kahane, the departing music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and Christopher O’Riley, who hosts the radio show From the Top. But many others have gone into teaching or under-the-radar careers and have largely fallen out of the public consciousness.

For now, the medalists can count on scores of pre-arranged concerts in venues here and abroad. On June 16 at 7 p.m., wqxr.org will present a live video webcast of the their first public appearances outside of Fort Worth – a sold-out evening of music and conversation at the Greene Space in New York City with host Elliott Forrest. And Decca Gold, the new U.S. Classical imprint of the Universal Music Group, has announced it will release a recording of Sunwoo on its digital platforms on June 23, with a physical CD becoming available Aug. 18.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical-music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music and Early Music America.

Leonard Slatkin (center) headed the jury: Rear, Alexander Toradze, Mari Kodama, Erik Tawaststjerna, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Arnaldo Cohen, and Christopher Elton. Seated: Joseph Kalichstein and Anne-Marie McDermott. (Ralph Lauer)