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The Top Van Cliburn Winners Reflect On The Musical Marathon Before The Next Stage

Bill Zeeble
The winners (from left to right) Daniel Hsu won bronze, Kenneth Broberg, silver, and Yekwon Sunwoo, gold.

The 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition has now been put to rest for another four years. It's been a hectic two and a half weeks in Fort Worth. But the high-endurance competition was just the start for the winners, who along with a cash prize, were awarded three years of concert bookings.

South Korean Yekwon Sunwoo took gold — the first time a pianist from that nation won Cliburn's top honor. Americans Kenneth Broberg and Daniel Hsu won silver and bronze, respectively.

For each of the 30 participants, this competition is a kind of musical marathon. It stresses the mind and the body, according to the 28-year-old gold medalist.

“It was physically challenging to play almost like every two days,” Sunwoo said, “And, of course, they ask for quite a huge repertoire. It was quite difficult to prepare all at once.” 


Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Competition over, Tekwon Sunwoo can now breathe a little easier as reporters take pictures and he prepares to give an interview in his native language to a South Korean journalist.

Sunwoo knows that in the real world, touring musicians might have to play different concerts night after night, making that expansive repertoire necessary.

Some medalists might also try learning new works when they get rare downtime, which might be a little easier for 23-year-old silver medalist Kenneth Broberg than for others. Last summer, the Minnesotan tackled Liszt's B-minor Sonata.

"I had heard it so much that I had it memorized before I even started,” Broberg said. Before anyone could let that astonishing feat sink in, he continued: “So it depends on how much the piece is in your memory, how much it is in your consciousness.”

Bronze medalist Daniel Hsu chimed in: “That might be because you're just really smart, Kenny."

Hsu, 19, is from the Bay Area. He said he entered this competition in part because it's so prestigious.

"Van Cliburn himself was such a towering figure in music. So that's why this competition is so important,” Hsu said. “And that's why it has been and will remain to be such an important competition. But my entry this time was just for fun.”

Winning — that's fun, too. Sunwoo gets $50,000 and three years of international bookings. Broberg and Hsu get $25,000 and $15,000 for second and third place plus three years of U.S. concerts each.

Every finalist had to play a quintet, two and a half hours of solo piano, a Mozart piano concerto and a big piece, like Rachmaninoff's Paganini Variations or his 3rd concerto.


"It was physically challenging to play almost like every two days."

It's the pianist's responsibility to manage the sound of the different halls they'll play in as well — many, for the first time. Broberg says the Cliburn competition tested that skill, too.   

“Chamber music, you have other people on stage,” Broberg said. “You have to react differently. Playing Mozart in a big hall with a big orchestra is challenging. Rachmaninoff, actually, is a little bit easier to play in a big hall, but also a necessary part of being a musician."

Another necessary part of being a musician? The right temperament, according to Leonard Slatkin, chair of the competition's jury. He also conducted the final round.

"From the start of this, it really was about who could sustain the rigors of first prize over the course of the next three years. This is tough. They're going to do a hundred concerts a year. We came to the realization that there was the possibility of burnout," Slatkin said.

The three pianists are off to New York for a quick visit and radio appearance. Then they get a short breather. Sunwoo's tour schedule begins next month. Broberg and Hsu start their Cliburn concerts this fall. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.