Yekwon Sunwoo wins 2012 Kapell Competition at University of Maryland

Yekwon Sunwoo capped his two-week efforts in the 2012 William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival with a bold, confident account of Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 3 Saturday night at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center.

After about a half hour of deliberations, the jury gave Sunwoo the first prize.

In addition to the $25,000 award, the 23-year-old South Korean pianist won the audience prize, tabulated by ballots cast after the concerto round, which featured three finalists performing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

It was easy to hear the reasons for Sunwoo's success. He tackled the demanding concerto with technique to spare and, more importantly, ...

considerable richness of phrasing.

This piece can be played with greater eloquence than Sunwoo summoned, and certainly at slower tempos than he favored, but the vitality and sense of spontaneity in his delivery proved highly impressive.

The top prize is not determined by the final round alone, of course. I imagine that, like me, a lot of folks in the packed house (the concerto round is the money night for any big competition) did not hear the earlier parts of the contest. But I assume Sunwoo's qualities shone from the start -- that he also received the chamber music prize says a lot.

The $15,000 second prize was given to South Korean pianist Jin Uk Kim, a grad student at the New England Conservatory. He had the first slot in the lengthy finals evening, playing Brahms' Concerto No. 2.

Again, there was no question of technical prowess. Interpretively, his did not seem a particularly individualistic approach, but Kim certainly conveyed the concerto's potent combination of muscle and poetry. And his phrasing in the Andante was admirably nuanced (same for BSO cellist Chang Woo Lee's solo in that movement).

Taking the $10,000 third prize, and the top honor from a separate, volunteer jury, was American pianist Steven Lin. Judging by the hearty cheers he received when his award was announced, I'd say he must have been a close second for audience favorite.

Lin's entry in the final round was Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a much shorter, and in some ways, less revealing work than the other two. But based on that performance alone, I'd have been attempted to give Lin the gold. His tone was unfailingly beautiful, his articulation extraordinary, as crystalline as could be in bravura bits, elegantly refined in legato lines.

Throughout the final round, conductor David Lockington provided more or less secure support for the soloists and drew poised playing from the BSO (not quite the BSO we are accustomed to seeing during the regular season -- lots of subs dotted the stage).

It's old hat, but worth noting again, that competitions do not necessarily produce star pianists. Few careers have been genuinely made by a competition triumph, so it is impossible to say what will happen to any of the 2012 Kapell finalists. But they all struck me as serious, sincere musicians capable of notable things.

Given that this quadrennial contest is named for one of America's greatest keyboard artists (Kapell's daughter was in the house Saturday), its prize-winners certainly deserve respect and a chance to reaffirm their worth in the years ahead.

PHOTO (by Mike Morgan) COURTESY OF CLARICE SMITH CENTER

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