The Carmel Music Society opened its 92nd season Sunday afternoon, September 30, at Sunset Center in Carmel with a recital by Gold Medalist of the Fifteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, 29-year-old pianist Yekwon Sunwoo. The Carmel Music Society has adopted a proactive tradition in recent years of sending a few board members and officers to attend each quadrennial Van Cliburn Competition in Ft. Worth to make a selection on the spot. On this occasion we observed that they had not only chosen well — they had really hit one out of the ballpark.
Simply said, this was an amazing recital. Sunwoo has a modest and honest approach to music. Unlike some Asian artists he exhibits no theatrics. He doesn’t resort to soulful looks to the heavens, he doesn’t occasionally play with one hand while conducting himself with the other, he doesn’t resort to wardrobe changes at intermission and he doesn’t resort to playing everything as fast and loud as he possibly can. Quite simply, he made music — glorious music — that took us on a magic adventure tour through a portion of his repertoire. He also whetted our appetite for a return engagement where perhaps we can hear him play Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Rachmaninoff, or whatever other composers his heart desires. When it happens, we want to be there to hear him.
Sunwoo selected a rather unusual work to open his program, titled “Ramble on the last love-duet from Der Rosenkavalier” by Richard Strauss. Rambles were Percy Grainger’s “Free Settings of Favorite Melodies,” and I venture to say that probably no one in Sunset Center, except Yekwon Sunwoo, of course had ever heard this work performed previously. This made it all the more delicious as an artfully crafted demonstration how a composer of the caliber of Percy Grainger can weave a magic spell in combining two voices, one a soprano and the other a mezzo, and in the process creating an enchanting and charming piece of music. Of course, it was ultimately the consummate artistry of Sunwoo that brought this magic to life. His lovely cantabile playing separated the various musical elements, with more than a little assistance from the Hamburg Steinway’s middle sostenuto pedal, and made us wish that this eight-minute piece had lasted even longer.
This great ability to perform works that absorbed our attention so completely that we wished they had lasted longer was in evidence elsewhere on the program. Earlier in the week I had been listening on Youtube to a performance of Schubert’s Four Impromptus, Op. 142, by one of the most famous pianists in the world — I will not name him, but his initials were A.B. In the opening Impromptu in F Minor, the piece droned on and on, and seemed endless in length. Actually, its duration was only 11 minutes, but it seemed more like 15. I timed Sunwoo (with my iPhone stopwatch), and when the first Impromptu ended, I was startled out of my total absorption to learn that its duration was also eleven minutes, however, it seemed like only five minutes. The remaining Impromptus from this set exhibited this same ability to absorb our attention to the extent that we remained mesmerized during the performances. Especially charming was the lovely second impromptu in A-flat Major, which sounds so easy you night think your great aunt Harriet could play it. Nothing could be further from the truth. This beautiful piece may sound easy, but to separate the melody so effectively from the accompanying voices requires a great artist to make it as magical as did Sunwoo. This was cantabile playing of the highest order.
Words seem inadequate to describe the effect of the great Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3, which ended the program. Sunwoo gave us an amazing performance of this 40-minute work. Once again time seemed suspended — we never wanted it to end. His technical mastery was subordinated to the deep and profound meanings of this mighty work. We forgot about technique because he was making us hear the score’s most inner and powerful messages. After a much deserved standing ovation, Sunwoo gave us a single encore, “October” from Tchaikovsky’s “The Seasons.” Again, it was totally absorbing.
Present in the audience on this occasion were many Koreans, many of whom had come considerable distances to attend the event, and they were fans. In the lovely reception in Sunset Center’s lobby after the concert (goodies by Victoria Davis & crew, plus fine wines donated by Windy Oaks Estate thanks to a request by Gary & Carolyn Bjorkland) many of the Koreans had their iPhones out and were taking selfies with the artist. He turned out to be as gracious and charming as his playing.