By Meg Cotner
SOLO Piano Series Saturday and Sunday, October 14 and 15, Lincoln Hall, Portland
This past weekend brought the start of the 2017/18 SOLO Series presented by Portland Piano International, and we were thrilled to welcome Cliburn Gold winner Yekwon Sunwoo to the Lincoln Hall stage for two incredible performances. It was a privilege – and a relief – to take a break from the current state of the world, having a chance to replenish the mind and soul with beautiful music.
On Saturday the crowd filtered in and prepared themselves for what would be a glorious first half of the recital dedicated to Schubert’s Sonata in C minor. Yekwon is vocal about his love of Schubert’s music: “Whenever I hear his music, even when it’s a happy tune, still there is sadness, and something like that stays in your heart a long time. For that reason I really love Schubert.” This was completely evident in his playing.
After the exquisitely played first movement, the man behind me uttered in a whisper, “WOW….” as if he could not contain his awe at what he had just heard. Yekwon’s fine-tuned control over the dynamics of the instrument was particularly striking, with an uncanny ability to create what seemed like an endless variety of soft dynamics. His use of silence was effective and dramatic toward the end of the second movement, and movements three and four showed us his deft articulation skills. The expressions on his face signaled the joy he felt playing this music. It was a breathtaking performance.
The second half of the recital started with Percy Grainger’s arrangement of "Ramble on the last Love-duet" from Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier. It was a piece with a more modern sound compared to the Schubert, but Yekwon continued to exhibit his mastery of dynamics and phrasing, with notes that were well-crafted and cared for; it felt like every note mattered. After that he moved on to Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, a three-movement piece that starts with an exuberant, frenetic opening, a real contrast to what came before. Along with the bombastic power in the writing, there was intricate articulation and real introspective moments. The drama and passion in Yekwon’s playing was clear, and the audience truly got that, evident by their rapt attention during the piece, then expressing their enthusiasm with an immediate standing ovation. For some in the crowd, standing clapping wasn’t enough, so they hollered with excitement and praise at what they had just witnessed.
More intensity followed with Ravel’s La Valse, a vibrant, explosive tour de force of idiomatic writing for the instrument that allowed Yekwon to exhibit his skills as an award-winning virtuosic pianist. Walls of sound came to life throughout and he seemed to physically resonate with the waltz rhythm that powered the piece. After the final chords were played, the audience jumped up, exuberantly cheering and clapping, excited by the performance; it was absolutely earned. After several curtain calls, Yekwon played an encore – one of the character pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Les Saisons: October/Song of the Autumn; a fitting piece for the season. Its quiet, reflective nature was a lovely contrast to the extroversion of the Ravel, and I welcomed the opportunity to calm down.
Sitting in the hall before Sunday’s recital started I was filled with anticipation for the performance, knowing there was much to love in store. The hall was close to full, and we learned later that the audience included several dozen students. It was also a more diverse crowd – ethnically, age-wise, and by languages (as we were waiting to start, I heard Russian, Korean, and Spanish spoken along with English). We were also introduced to the new Dean of the College of the Arts at PSU, Leroy Bynum, Jr. – who also happened to be sitting next to me!
The concert started with a handful of delightful Mozart pieces that served as the entire first half of the recital, and I was pleased to hear gorgeous articulation that could have fooled me into thinking Yekwon was using historical fingerings. I also thought I heard some décalage, where the note in the right hand is just slightly delayed from that in the left hand. Rhetorical elements were present, which added a wonderful yet accessible complexity to it all. The audience loved his interpretation, evident from their excited cheers after the Sonata in C was over. Personally, I was thrilled to hear the Rondo in A Minor, one of my favorite Mozart piano works – the dissonances in the first couple of measures are absolutely delicious.
Schubert’s Moments Musicaux started the second half, and after hearing his Schubert sonata from the day before I knew we were in for a treat. These pieces involve such a variety of sound worlds – gentle and soft expressions with an undertow of reserved power; meditative moments; light and sprightly bits; percussive and cinematic treatments – in fact, the fifth movement sounded like it could have been the soundtrack to a silent film. And while the entire piece is mastery come alive, the final movement was particularly moving, with its bittersweet passages of a cherished time gone by – perhaps of a summer romance. It ended very quietly, drawing the audience in. It was spectacular.
He ended the recital with Ravel’s La Valse – the only piece he played on both days, and it was fascinating to hear the two versions. Saturday’s performance was wilder and filled with more pure energy. Sunday’s performance brought out the waltz rhythm more prominently and there was more diversity in dynamics, articulation, and power plays. I really enjoyed hearing more lighthearted moments in the piece on Sunday, though there was something magnetic about the wilder performance the day before. It goes without saying that both versions were wonderful and astonishing in all the best ways.
Yekwon ended his time in Portland with an encore of Liszt’s La Campanella, a shimmery theme and variations. Its sparkly essence was a fitting end to a weekend celebration of piano music by a player of such skill, expressiveness, and maturity, who can take your breath away with the quietest of notes and the loudest of flourishes. We wish Yekwon all the best as he continues his career, one that we know will be filled with memorable, meaningful and engaging performances.
Meg Cotner lives and works in Portland, Oregon. She has a background in classical music, starting with piano lessons in her late teens and eventually earning a DMA in Harpsichord from Stony Brook University (NY). During her time as a working musician she fell in love with writing, and ultimately exchanged one keyboard for another. She is a published author, and currently writes and edits digital and print works related to the arts, food, and culture.