2018 Carmel Music Society Biennial Piano Competition winner Kevin Lee Sun appeared in recital yesterday afternoon at Sunset Center. It was, in retrospect, an oddly chosen program. The works on the first half, consisting of a Prelude & Fugue from Bach’s WTC II, the Fantasia nach J.S. Bach by Busoni and Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy,” were totally involving and demonstrated Sun’s ability to paint with a stunningly beautiful palette of colors while demonstrating a seemingly effortless total keyboard mastery. At the end of the first half, spontaneous bravos erupted from members of the audience, and he received a thunderous standing ovation.
These repertoire selections should have ended the program, because the works Sun performed on the second half — sets of variations by Hyo-Shin Na and Brahms, plus a bland Romance by Schumann — were about as exciting as a firecracker on the Fifth of July. Although most artists would plan to end a recital, not with a whimper, but with a bang, both the Brahms Variations and the Schumann Romance faded away so quietly the audience seemed to be genuinely surprised when they were over, and not sure when to applaud. At the end of the concert there was a standing ovation, but the applause quickly faded, and there was no encore.
Unquestionably, Sun is a total musician from his toes to his fingertips, and his virtuosity knows no bounds. Most importantly, his virtuosity is often understated, since he uses it to serve and enhance the music and never for gratuitous display. His performance of the Bach Prelude & Fugue in C Major, BWV 870, was so natural and charming, you were genuinely sorry when it was over. His performance of Busoni’s Fantasia nach J.S. Bach was a revelation, for most of us in the audience were hearing this work for the first time and didn’t know quite what to expect. We heard homage to Bach with a definite romantic slant and a slight modern perspective. This performance pulled us into its spiritual core and immersed us in lovely, colorful solemnity until it finally reached a beautiful quiet ending that seemed inevitable and totally satisfying.
The greatest work on the program was Schubert’s mighty Wanderer Fantasie, Op. 15, one of the marvels of the piano literature. Although it is a work that some artists overplay and weaken with relentless pounding and excessive speed, Sun showed noble restraint that brought out the best moments in the setting of the the song that inspired the work, as well as in all the fiery Sturm und Drang that surrounds it. This was a gorgeous and masterful performance with beautiful cantabile and shaping of phrases. This was the best performance of this this work I have ever heard, and it was a performance I never wanted to end.
The novelty on the program was a set of variations by Hyo-Shin No, the wife of Kevin’s piano teacher at Stanford, Thomas Schultz. This was a 13-minute, well-crafted piece that began with an extended solo for left hand alone that bounced all over the keyboard while strongly favoring the bass register of the piano. The style was strongly rhythmic with punched out disjointed intervals that suggested a twentieth-century tone row on meth. Except for brief quasi-lyrical, moments of lyricism at four minutes and eleven minutes into the work, these variations pulled no punches. Although this is a challenging piece for the performer (and the audience as well), Kevin Sun Lee easily navigated his way through its thorny difficulties and managed to make it sound like a coherent and appealing work.
We would love to hear Kevin Sun Lee in a return engagement, and perhaps next time we could persuade him to play some Chopin. Speaking with him briefly after the concert, I asked him about Chopin. He smiled and made a dismissive gesture with his hand saying, “There is already too much Chopin.” I don’t agree with him about this. Alan Walker in his recently-published biography of Chopin says in his preface. “Wherever I am on earth, someone within a fifty-mile radius is either listening to or playing a work by Chopin.”