Pianist Yekwon Sunwoo 2

Pianist Yekwon Sunwoo at the 2017 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Carolyn Cruz photo

In a brilliant performance of Brahms' Second Piano Concerto with the Waco Symphony Orchestra Thursday night, pianist Yekwon Sunwoo displayed  the impressive musicality that results when both head and heart drive well-trained hands.

Sunwoo, winner of this year's Van Cliburn International Piano Competition held every four years in Fort Worth, played the Brahms masterwork with a clarity of line that seemed to reveal Brahms' mind at work, whether defining a variation of phrase or dynamic, echoing an orchestral part or connecting a theme.

The pianist seemed to know what was going on in the work at every moment and delivered exactly was needed, whether a clear melody or softly shaded chord, with little flash or physical exaggeration. In a motif throughout the work, Sunwoo would punctuate a keyboard spanning run with a firm high note, followed by the fading whisper of a lower tone.

Sunwoo also played with heart, adding heat and energy to the second movement and a translucent grace to the following third.

It's not uncommon for audiences these days to applaud after the Brahms concerto's rousing opening movement, nearly a self-contained concerto in itself, but Sunwoo's playing was so compelling that the Waco Hall audience applauded after every movement, even after a collective breath-holding silence at the close of the third. Only a blue-nosed classical Puritan could be unforgiving about this.

The WSO, under Music Director Stephen Heyde's baton, matched the pianist's performance with robust play and a passion expressed not only in strong dynamics, as in the first two movements, but soulfulness, the latter most realized in the third movement framed by heart-melting solos by cello principal Elaine Whitmire and support from cellos and violas.

After two standing ovations at the concerto's end, Sunwoo returned for an encore of a Schubert lied that he dedicated to Heyde and his mother. Sunwoo turned from a superbly balanced navigation of the Brahms' complexity and density to an exquisitely shaded revelation of melody and tone in the Schubert.

This was a performance to be remembered.

The concert's opening half had heft and musicality as well. Hornist Jeffrey Powers and trombonist Brent Phillips on alto trombone provided the highlighted solo and duet lines that drove the Michael Haydn concertino starting the evening, their warm tones a lovely blend.

"Night Ride and Sunrise," the Sibelius tone poem that followed, was oddly structured, but nonetheless compelling. Strings repeated a galloping, rising-and-falling motif for a good portion of the work, once touched with percussion and woodwinds, before a full eight-horn chorus broke the spell with golden tone.

From there, the orchestra began a slow crescendo, carried by swelling strings and accented with chirping, singing phrases from woodwinds, to a rising, inspiring musical dawn.

Tribune-Herald entertainment editor