YEKWON SUNWOO SUNWOOK
WFIMC INTERVIEW INTERVIEW
This year, many competitions and concerts have been cancelled... many people are disappointed...
What comes to mind first when you think about the Cliburn Competition?
When I think about the Cliburn Competition, I think hospitality, excitement and love. It does not matter where you come from or how you do in the competition. Everyone there is very welcoming and shows sincere appreciation for you and your work.
I have entered the Cliburn Competition once in 2013, then again in 2017. In 2013, I was the first alternate and I did not get a callback until about a week before the event commenced. As an alternate, I did not have motivation to practice since the odds of receiving an invite were slim. When I was invited after a participant withdrew, I was hesitant about accepting it; I hadn’t fully learned the commission work nor finalized the program. Because Cliburn provided all the accommodations for travel, a host family, and I thought I could make up for lost time, I decided to participate. My goal in 2013 was to play through the first-round repertoire without stopping.
It was different entering the Cliburn Competition for the second time in 2017 because I would be ineligible due to my age in 2021. Strangely, I also thought that this could be my last competition ever and felt more pressure to win. With this mindset, I was determined to go to Cliburn without an ounce of regret about my preparation. It was mentally and physically exhausting, but I was fully focused on the music I had to play. Practicing for the competition comprised precious moments in which I felt a strong connection to each composer and freely indulged in their beautiful works.
Cliburn brings me joyous memories because of my host family, friends, and the Cliburn family. Their sincerity and warmth can make you feel like a part of the family and their encouragement meant a lot to me. When my host family came to pick me up at the airport and I met their dogs at home, I had a good feeling about my chances at winning. ;)
WFIMC Interview | 2020
Since then, I was fortunate enough to return to Texas and see them all. I would even try to see them briefly if I had a concert not too far away. This has become more difficult recently because of Covid-19. I was looking forward to seeing Kay and George at my concert in Colorado this past June but we had to alter our plans, of course. I wish to see them very soon.
How did you deal with all the stress? Was there something special helping you not to get nervous? Some artists like Rudolf Buchbinder says, they get more nervous as they are getting older. Others, like Arthur Rubinstein, prefer to, “be a bit nervous in the evening rather than spending 6 hours a day practicing.”
For me, it depends on how prepared I am and how integrated I feel with the music I play. My way of coping with stress is psychological and I think everyone has their own distinct methods. Fortunately, stress and anxiety do not affect me very much but I do get a little cranky. I also do not mind getting a little nervous for a performance. I just try to ignore the doubts, sing the music in my head, and stay in character of the music that I am about to play.
Though I felt the hampering pressure to deliver my best, my method at Cliburn in 2017 was quite simple. I would solely concentrate on the music I have to play and nothing else. I did not even look at my phone nor interact with people the closer I got to my performance.
WFIMC interview | 2020
What was your first impression when you came to Texas?
Fort Worth is an incredible city, both very historical and modern. It is one of the few cities that offers an exceptional fine dining experience. Since the Cliburn Competition is held every 4 years, Fort Worth erupts with elaborate festivities during this time.
In addition to my wonderful host family, George and Kay Duggan, Cliburn also connects each contestant with “social hosts.” They are usually in their 20s to 30s, making them similar in age with the participants. Because I am not active nor social when focusing on piano, I could not spend as much time as I wanted with Christopher and Emma. They, however, gave me a tour of the city and a special gift, Texan boots! (laughs).
In addition, my host family selflessly provided pivotal support for my success and I was very comfortable staying with them. They are incredibly warm, thoughtful, and positive. Their family includes 3 dogs and a cat that acts like a dog. Because I love dogs, their home was heavenly, which made me forget about the stress of competition at times.
Did you have any “comfort food” before you went on stage? Could you even sleep or did you have many sleepless nights during the competition?
I think the only sleepless night was after the final announcement of the competition!
I do not have any particular comfort food before I go on stage, but I sometimes take chocolate, with almonds if possible, and bananas. Caffeine doesn't affect me very much, so I like to have some espresso unless I have an empty stomach. Kay is an amazing cook so I ate very well while I was there too.
You won at several competitions... What do they mean to you, years later? When you look back, what are your dearest memories apart from winning?
I am thankful for the competitions I have won and the others for being good learning experiences. I got to meet genuine people around the world through these events and I personally could not have started my concertizing career without them.I may have not advanced to the end in many competitions but I was fortunate to win some competitions every year, earning prize money with which I continued my studies abroad.
with Jacques Marquis, President of the Cliburn, and social host Christopher
and earn a platform to share your music widely. The expectation for accuracy and perfection is far greater than ever before so we see a trend that seems to emphasize technique. That, however, does not mean that there shouldn’t be artistry. There are performers who are technically perfect but do not utilize their skills as a means for musicality. It is difficult to win a competition if only the technical aspects are perfect. I learned that training your musical abilities through competitions is a great endeavor. Because competitions are demanding, it can feel like a horse race sometimes, but thankfully the players and jury members have emotions! Your technique may matter
but your musical delivery and conviction are paramount. The amount of repertoire is enormous and difficult to handle at competitions so Bartok may not be totally wrong.
Besides Cliburn, I have fond memories of the Sendai Competition in 2013. I was very impressed by their organization and hospitable staff. Like Cliburn, Sendai provides a round-trip plane ticket. The competitors lodge in a hotel but are introduced to their host families. The participants who do not advance to the end of the competition are given the option to stay with their host families which prevents the trouble of changing flights. I did not get to spend much time with my host family due to my preparation for competition but I keep contact with them and the whole family comes to my concerts when I play in Japan!
Bartok once said “Competitions are for horses, not for artists” - What do you think about competitions in principle?
A competition is an opportunity to perform
The extensive repertoire, however, resembles the workload of an in-demand artist. With fast international traveling and need for variety of pieces at various venues, a widening range in repertoire becomes a part of a performer’s responsibility. Many artists play in lots of cities in a short period of time. Some may spend a whole season with just one single program, but many seek to take on challenges with repertoire choices.
How did you organize your competition program?
I treated it like a recital program. I debated whether I should fill the whole program with important works from just one composer, or make selections from several. I usually play around with the balance of the program by pairing substantial pieces with lighter ones or famous works with lesser-known works. For the competition, I initially chose a work by my favorite composer and experimented from there for a well-rounded program.
It is Schubert that you like the most?
Yes, Schubert. My favorite composers are usually ones whose pieces I happen to be working on but Schubert is my absolute favorite all the time.
Another question: Have you ever been asked to be in a jury?
Yes, I have judged recital programs of 40-50 minutes each, prepared by six pianists in Germany. I was surprised by how much concentration was needed to do this. Somehow I can't imagine how difficult it would be to judge a whole competition spanning two weeks with 30 participants, listening to numerous rounds from preliminary to final.
I do not give a low score simply because I am not attracted to the performance. A judge should make a comprehensive assessment, taking many aspects into account. Because of this, the job of the judge requires an unwavering concentration, open mind, and memory in order to make an objective review. I think judging demands much more energy than performing.
How did you manage the last months during the pandemic? Did you play on- line a lot?
I was home much of the time and only went outside for groceries. I didn’t have many places to go to since most restaurants and stores were closed or nearly closed. Thankfully, Germany is starting to operate more normally nowadays. Because of social distancing, I released a pre-recorded broadcast which slightly resembled an online concert. Live streaming instead of live performing feels awkward. The energy in your performance space is inevitably different since your audience is only connected to you virtually. It is challenging to feel the same atmosphere of a real live performance when you do not witness your spectators and their energy. On the other hand, online concerts are also a blessing for musicians and their audiences because it is a pivotal way for us to connect, especially nowadays.
In that vein, I video recorded some of my performances in my living room and sent it to Steinway and Sons for a “Lunchtime Concert.” I played “Nostalgic Mt. Geum- gang,” a Korean folk song.
Would you approve of an international competition to be held online?
Yes, but I would have concerns about objectivity. Normally, everyone plays the same piano with the same acoustics. Online, we would lose a bit of that objectivity embedded in the usual set up. It may be more challenging to judge a competition this way but, perhaps, still doable. Nevertheless I think it is great to see people making music as best as they can despite the limitations we must endure. I have the utmost respect for people who keep defying the odds in order to keep music alive.
Do you think we will have to live with social distancing in the concert hall? Do you think people are really afraid to come to large concerts?
In due time, I believe we will return to concert halls without fear but we must follow health regulations by competent authorities in the meantime. Nobody knows what the future will bring, so it seems as though we should keep giving our best effort in containing this pandemic and make music in safe and innovative ways. Music heals our souls.
Has your lifestyle changed recently?
I started exercising! I am doing light strength exercises. I think that my octave technique has become more comfortable as a result. (laughs) I also walk much more these days.
Do you like living in Germany?
Yes, I like the atmosphere in Germany. When I am there, I feel mentally at ease. There’s a sense of security that comes with the place and I can focus very easily there.
You can even manage the food? What’s your favorite over there?
Yes, I order from local restaurants and cook on a regular basis. Not German, but I’d recommend the Ebi Burger from a restaurant called Shiso Burger. Love it!
Any plans for the near future?
I will be releasing a new album with works by Mozart this fall. Please stay tuned!
Interview : WFIMC
Photography : ©Jeremy Enlow/Cliburn ©Studio_Simdo
©Carolyn Cruz ©Y. Sunwoo