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A teenage South Korean phenom, a Russian and a Ukrainian win Cliburn medals

Cliburn Winners 1533.jpg
Richard Rodriguez
The 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition winners. R-L: Gold medal winner, holding the silver cup, 18-year-old Yunchan Lim, from South Korea. Silver medal winner Anna Geninushene, 31 years old, from Russia. Bronze medal winner, 28-year-old Dmytro Choni, from Ukraine. Their lives just changed in very big ways.

At the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, an 18-year-old South Korean won the gold medal, the youngest person to win in the contest’s 60-year history. There was another first in this competition. As a war rages between Ukraine and Russia, pianists from both nations also competed, and both earned medals. It was reminiscent of Van Cliburn winning the Tchaikovsky competition in1958, during the height of the cold war.

Yunchan Lim, from South Korea, said he lives to play piano. For 17 days he showed audiences and Cliburn jurors why. Performances of Lizst’s ridiculously challenging Transcendental Etudes, then Rachmaninoff’s giant 3rd Piano Concerto, catapulted him to the top. In the very first recital round, his interpretation of the competition’s new piece, Sir Stephen Hough’s Fanfare Toccata, revealed Lim’s interpretive skills. He won the award for best performance of the new work. Composer Hough, himself on the jury, said the decision was unanimous.

On winning gold, the teen from Siheung was humble.

“I’m still a student. I feel I lack a lot still. This is a great competition and I feel the burden of receiving this a great honorable award,” he said. “So I will just push myself to measure myself for up to the honor that I received today.”

Lim knows his schedule will now key up over the next several years with travel and concert dates. They’re part of the gold prize that also comes with $100,000 cash. He still wants to study and learn more works, including another imposing piece, J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Lim said “I think I need to have a discussion with my teacher in Korea,” about how to manage all that.

Mention of the Goldberg Variations prompted laughter from reporters and bronze medal winner Dmytro Choni at a press conference after the award ceremonies.

Well, this young man is just incredible. So, chapeau,” Choni said with a smile.

It was a light moment during a contest with heavy security, start to finish, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Cliburn competition bucked initial anti-Russia trends by letting seven Russians and a player from Belarus compete. Silver medalist and Moscow native Anna Geniushene, pregnant with her second child, was grateful for the decision. Earlier this year she and her pianist husband fled Russia with their child for Lithuania, to be safe and free after Ukraine was invaded.

“When we are on stage, we're representing probably different schools of music, but not really countries because, you know, we are not athletes, we are not sponsored by government,” she said. “We are, I mean, self-employed musicians.”

Geniushene’s silver medal should help bolster that self-empolyment, with three years of concerts, artistic management and $50,000 cash.

Ukrainian Demytro Choni’s bronze award brings in $25,000 cash and three years of performances. Playing concerts is all he wants to do, even as he worries about family members in his native Kyiv. He mostly avoided mention of fighting back home, out of safety concerns. However he was among the first to stand as he put his hand over his heart at the awards ceremony. Before any winners were announced, 2013 Cliburn gold winner Vadym Kholodenko, also from Kyiv, tearfully performed the Ukrainian national anthem at the piano. Within the first few notes, the packed Bass Hall audience was standing.

For a full rundown of all winners, click this link: