Yekwon Sunwoo, of South Korea

He won the gold medal at the 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2017. This weekend Yekwon Sunwoo dazzled an audience at the Music Hall of the Tucson Convention Center with his performance of Beethoven’s Concerto No. 3, which he described as a piece with “lots of joy and drama in it.”

The Concerto was the initial offering by the Tucson Symphony celebrating the 250th birth of Ludwig van Beethoven in 1770. His first eight symphonies will be performed throughout the 2019/2020 season, and Music Director Kose Luiz Gomez promised the audience the famous Ninth Symphony will be held for a “special event.” Gomez said that even after more than two centuries the music of Beethoven “feels fresh and alive. He was always trying to use music to communicate about things going on in the world.”

The Concerto begins with a stealthy theme which develops into an inquiring prelude for the piano to answer. The interrogative motif is maintained as the orchestra and piano alternately ask and respond. The fluid motion of Sunwoo’s hands developed a response to the orchestra that was both youthful and irreproachable in character. Despite this the orchestra did not relent, trying to break through his defenses but Sunwoo ultimately prevailed as the concerto reached a climactic mid-point. In this highlight of the Concerto, the piano solo calls for the effortless floating of fingers on the keys to conjure up the effect of an ethereal medium hovering over the piano. Sunwoo achieved this with confidence and control, befitting a true concert pianist of high order.

The second half clothes itself in a plaintive garb where every note becomes deliberate and time itself seems to slow to allow for the expression of a sublime bathos. Here the pianist must induce a degree of torpor which is not readily mastered. Fulsome exuberance is typically more appreciated by an audience but the extreme restraint required by Beethoven here really tests the mettle of a pianist. Less is more, in this case. Sunwoo expressed the mood with due regard to the demands of the Concerto in a manner that would have satisfied even a New York audience.

The Tucson Symphony also performed a rather dirge-like Fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach, and Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, Op. 92. While the galloping and boisterous symphony is typically a crowd-pleaser, it paled in comparison with Sunwoo’s performance of Concerto No.3, Op. 37. The next concert, on Oct. 5 and 6, will see a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4.

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Photo credit: Carolyn Cruz

Yekwon Sunwoo, of South Korea