15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition 2017: And the winner is...

30 June 2017
Screen-Shot-2017-07-18-at-07.22.16-65791.png Winners
The results of this famous piano competition which takes place in Fort Worth, Texas, every four years


Korean pianist takes gold with blistering Rachmaninov


Among the most prestigious and arduous of international piano competitions, the 15th edition of the Van Cliburn reached its climax on 9-10 June. At Bass Hall in the competition’s home in Fort Worth, Texas, six concerto finalists competing for the gold medal and $50,000 cash prize. They were won by Yekwon Sunwoo, a 28-year-old Korean graduate of the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music.


Here he is playing his Concerto final, the Rachmaninov No 3, with Leonard Slatkin:



‘It’s the piece in my repertoire I feel I could play any time I want to,’ Sunwoo remarked of No 3, the longest and most testing of Rachmaninov’s concertos. ‘I enjoy playing it so much, with its huge range of dynamics and emotions.’ It was with this concerto that Van Cliburn became a household name in 1958, winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and causing a serious tremor in Cold War culture politics. Back in the US the competition bearing his name was founded in 1962 in order to further cultural diplomacy. With its first Korean winner, those culture politics have turned full circle.


Silver and bronze medals were taken respectively by US pianists Kenneth Broberg (23) and Daniel Hsu (19), who also won awards for the best performances of chamber music and new music.


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The audience prize (voted on by more than 20,000 visitors to cliburn.org and cliburn2017.medici.tv) went to another finalist, the 25-year-old native of Hong Kong, Rachel Cheung. Cheung made quite a stir at the Competition – some witnesses saying that she should have made it to the Final round. Here is a glimpse of her playing Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz:



‘I still don’t feel like I won first prize,’ said Sunwoo, clearly in shock several days later. ‘I’m overwhelmed to start on all the concerts, but excited to start this journey and be part of the Cliburn family. I try not to think about competitions too much but to focus on the music. I hopefully play better than I can talk!’


Jury chairman Leonard Slatkin, who conducted the final-round concertos, said the jury was looking for pianists they believe could handle a busy concert career. ‘It really was about who could sustain the rigours of first prize over the course of the next three years,’ Slatkin said. ‘This is tough. They are going to do 100 concerts a year.’


Through social media, the webcast, and its partnership with European broadcast firm Medici.tv, the competition reached more than 4.6 million people in 169 countries. Several competition performances (including Sunwoo’s winning Rachmaninov) are still available on Medici and YouTube. Decca has released highlights from the solo rounds of all three medallists, both streamed online and on CD.


Read Pianist editor Erica Worth’s report from the Beethoven International Piano Competition Vienna in the upcoming issue 97. 


Photo, left to right: Kenneth Broberg, Yekwon Sunwoo, Daniel Hsu