Pianist Yekwon Sunwoo faces a busy fall: concerts in New Mexico, Texas, California, Nebraska, Oregon, Kentucky and Colorado. Travel abroad to concerts in Canada, Scotland, South Korea and Lebanon. Performances of works by Brahms, Ravel, Schubert, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Strauss, Mozart and Bartok. Promotion of the Decca Gold album “Cliburn Gold 2017” containing his performances of Ravel’s “La Valse” and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Sonata.
That’s the consequence — and a good one — of winning the quadrennial Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, which Sunwoo did three months ago. The Korean-born pianist bested a field of 30 young performers from around the world, rising to the top with playing that critics termed “crisp,” “effervescent,” sensitively balanced in ensemble play and dynamic.
He comes to Waco next week for a Sept. 21 concert with the Waco Symphony Orchestra, opening the WSO’s 2017-18 season with Brahms’ masterful Piano Concerto No. 2.
Sunwoo, speaking by phone while in New York City for several days, shrugged at the schedule ahead and noted that’s one reason why the Cliburn competition is so daunting for performers. “It’s physically and mentally challenging, but understandable: They want to see if someone has what it takes to start their concert career,” he said.
The 28-year-old pianist fought off fatigue, an auditorium he felt was distractingly cold, a late schedule change and pressure-filled performances roughly every two days for more than two weeks to win.
He won, in part, through mastery of pieces he had learned earlier in years of study at such schools as the Curtis Institute of Music, the Juilliard School and the Mannes School of Music. Others he learned in the last year, polishing them in performances last spring before the Cliburn competition.
“That’s really important,” he noted. “If you bring something new (to the contest), you should make more than 100 percent sure everything’s prepared.”
Sunwoo will perform Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto in his Sept. 21 concert with the Waco orchestra, days after performing the same work with the Santa Fe Orchestra in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The concerto follows a program first half that features the WSO playing Michael Haydn’s Concertino for Horn, Alto Trombone and Strings and Jean Sibelius’ “Night Ride and Sunrise.”
The Brahms was the pianist’s suggestion. Interested in developing his German repertoire, Sunwoo moved to Germany this year to study French piano stylings with Bernd Goetzke. The Brahms offers technical difficulty, an emotional journey on a grand scale and the opportunity to work with a new director and ensemble, which keeps him fresh, he said.
It also gives the pianist the opportunity to do what guides his performances: carry an audience along the emotional path he’s following in the music.
“I want the audience to experience the same feelings I have,” he said.
For Sunwoo, the inner two movements of the Brahms concerto bear highlighting.
“There’s an amazing third movement, with its cello solo opening. It takes you to a different place,” he explained. “And the second movement has so much passion. It’s fiery.”
WSO Music Director Stephen Heyde said the Brahms, known for its balance between orchestra and piano, aptly finishes the orchestra’s season opener.
“When (Sunwoo) offered it, I jumped at it,” he said. “It’s one of the most collaborative concertos I know. There’s such communication between orchestra and pianist. Brahms was a fabulous pianist and this is the master at his heights.”
The concerto completes a program that opens with a lighter work by Michael Haydn, the younger brother of the more famous Austrian composer Franz Josef Haydn. The concertino consists of the two middle movements from Haydn’s “Serenade” and will feature the WSO’s Jeff Powers on horn and Brent Phillips on alto trombone. “It’s a refreshing way to begin the concert,” Heyde said.
Sibelius’ atmospheric 1908 tone poem “Night Ride and Sunrise” follows, the Finnish composer’s imagining of galloping horses, evoked by the string section, through the night to a northern sunrise. “It’s a mystical piece in some ways,” said Heyde. “The harmonies are haunting, but unusual, with a transition that’s typically Sibelius. The sunrise is pictured by beautiful tones in brass. I heard it this summer and wanted to do it.”