Van Cliburn

Cliburn confidential: Yekwon Sunwoo

Cliburn confidential

26 out of 30

A series of conversations with the Cliburn competitors

Yekwon Sunwoo

(Pronounced yay-kwon sun-woo)

Nationality: South Korean

Born: Anyang, South Korea

Lives: New York City

Age: 24

Earliest piano memories: “I started learning the piano when I was 8,” he says. “I had two older sisters and both of them played, so I grew up listening to them practice and I wanted to learn the instrument myself. I went to this piano academy in the neighborhood and after a couple of years, the teacher felt like I had some talent to be a concert pianist. She didn’t tell me. She told my mom. I just loved playing the piano.”

Coming to America: “I was 15 when I came to the United States,” he says. “I went to an arts school in Korea from seventh to ninth grade. I was doing pretty OK there. After graduating, I got into an arts high school, but my teacher told me that it would be better for me to go abroad and study. She had also studied at Juilliard so she knew about the system in the United States. So I went to the Curtis Institute [in Philadelphia].”

Was it hard coming to the U.S. at such a young age? “I didn’t feel that way at all. It was quite the opposite. You have to be 16 to come here alone, so my mother stayed with me that whole first year,” he says. “I was just really excited to come and experience a completely different environment. It was just amazing to be surrounded by all these other great musicians who have a lot to share with their music. It was really difficult to learn English, but because I could play the piano, I could communicate with my teacher.”

Hobbies and interests: “I love drinking coffee and wine with friends. When I’m not practicing, we just go out and wander around,” he says. “Because of that, I end up drinking, like, six cups of coffee a day. I live in New York, so there are so many things to do. Depending on my mood, I might go to a concert or to a museum. I use a lot of energy playing the piano. When I have free time, I just try to really not do anything.”

Ambitions for the Cliburn: “Everyone feels the same way entering a competition,” he says. “They say they go for the experience, but they don’t just go for the experience. They go to do well. This competition gives full exposure in the media. There are so many other people watching you online. I just hope to say what I want to say with my music, and hopefully people will like it.”

— Tim Madigan