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Gurwitz Piano Competition Narrows The Field

Courtesy photo
L to R: Olga Kern (Gurwitz judge), finalists Jiale Li, Yedam Kim, Leonardo Colafelice, Gurwitz judge Sebastian Lang-Lessing

Round Two of The Gurwitz 2020 International Piano Competition began on Wednesday morning at Ruth Taylor Recital Hall on the Trinity University campus. Six competitors were chosen on Tuesday night to continue performing. They were:

  • Alexey Sychev, Russia
  • Joon Yoon, South Korea
  • Jiale Li, People’s Republic of China
  • Yedam Kim, South Korea
  • Jongyun Kim, South Korea
  • Leonardo Colafelice, Italy

After another full day of performance, the judges narrowed the field down to three Finalists: Jiale Li, Yedam Kim, and Leonardo Colafelice. A special prize for best performance by a work of Latin or Spanish origin went to Jongyun Kim, who played music by Enrique Granados, from “Goyescas.”

Earlier in the day, audience member Dr. Anna Armstrong was positively jazzed after hearing Alexey Sychev’s performance, and said she could feel the crowd react to every competitor.

“The energy is amazing,” Armstrong said. “The talent is unparalleled. It even exceeds that of which was here in 2016 for San Antonio International Piano Competition. And Musical Bridges has taken the Gurwitz and raised the bar so much higher. And the contestants are responding beautifully.”

Armstrong added she looks forward to Round Three of the competition, which features the Finalists performing with members of the Silk Road Ensemble live at the Empire Theatre. “It’s going to be something that opens the minds of everybody,” she said.

Following Round Three, the Final Round takes place at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday night at 7 p.m., as each finalist performs a complete piano concerto with the San Antonio Symphony. Yedam Kim will play Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto, Jiale Li will play Sergei Rachmaninoff’s haunting Concerto No. 2, and Leonardo Colafelice will play Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3. Texas Public Radio’s KPAC 88.3 FM will broadcast the concert live. Excerpts from Round Two performances will be heard on "Classical Connections" from 1-3 p.m. this week.

Following a morning performance that ranged from 20th century Korea to turn-of-the-century France, TPR’s Randy Anderson caught up with competitor Joon Yoon. You can hear Yoon’s performance in the audio player below, and following that is an edited transcript of his interview.

Randy Anderson: I really enjoyed your second set for the concert here at the Gurwitz 2020 International Piano Competition. It was a challenging first piece. Now it's your countryman, Isang Yun, from 1958. The [Korean] War was over, what, like five years or so [when he wrote it]? Is that a part of that music?

Joon Yoon: Yeah. Well, [it] has a lot of history because it represents sort of what happened in Korea, and also sort of what happened in America as well, because [Yun] was exiled from the south because of certain, I guess, communications he tried to do with the north. I mean, it doesn't matter what your political stance is, but I see it sort of similar to what happened here with like McCarthyism or something like that. So that's what happened to him. And so he lived the rest of his life in Germany. But he's obviously heavily Second Viennese School influenced. And I feel like he sort of incorporated Korean traditional music with that language, somehow. I can hear that sort of... this folklore music and Korean traditional instruments, sort of similar to the Chinese traditional ones, but a little different.

Credit Nathan Cone / TPR
Joon Yoon.

That's good to know about the Second School because it was not... I was expecting something that was much more Asian and it really was a fusion. The Granados was so beautiful. And again it's such a difference.. And then you gave us bookends of Liszt. The first going back to the 1830s, him taking Paganini's music and orchestrating it for the piano… but then at the end, the minimalist and kind of a future looking piece with "Nuages Gris." Well, how did you come about deciding [to program] that?

I thought it would be a nice transition into the Scriabin, and I guess… as a performer, as a person and I guess I can be quite eclectic. And that's sort of how I try to program. My dear teacher, Kirill Gerstein, he's sort of... that's what he also does, of course, in a more poetic way than myself. But yeah, I mean, Liszt and all these composers, I think the great ones that they go through so much change in their lives, whether it's Beethoven or Liszt, or even Mozart and Bach, you know, and also contemporary composers.

Liszt was healthy, and he lived 75, 76 years, and not all composers did that. He had a chance to see a great range in his life. When you're playing something so minimalist, suddenly you've got, you know, literally a handful of notes compared to “La Campanella” with has thousands of notes. Do you play that differently? Because it seems each note would be so important.

I don't try to give sort of every note importance. I think it's, as I said along the line of sort of breathing the music comes with not giving effort to every note, but sort of finding the right... I don't know how to put it, not the right notes, but sort of to swing on, maybe? I just think everything is sort of a dance, maybe?

And then the Scriabin, one of my favorites. I read somewhere, probably in his biography, that he considered the tenth sonata a hymn to the sun by insects!

Yes! He's a crazy man. Cuckoo.

Yeah, he's a proto-hippie. But the idea that, you know, you played it in kind of a smooth and in a generous way. Some pianists, are like, "well, it's late Scriabin, I'm gonna go chhhhhkkk" You know, full bore. And it was more of a celebration with you playing it, and I really enjoyed that.

Thank you. I sort of see it differently than the Fifth Sonata or something like that or the Ninth. I think it's not as violent, but a little more...

…yeah, the Ninth is unhealthy! Well, thank you so much for speaking to us. And best of luck in your future.

Thank you!

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Nathan has been with TPR since 1995, when he began working on classical music station KPAC 88.3 FM, as host of “Tuesday Night at the Opera.” He soon learned the ropes on KSTX 89.1 FM, and volunteered to work practically any shift that came his way, on either station. He worked in nearly every capacity on the radio before moving into Community Engagement, Marketing, and Digital Media. His reporting and criticism has been honored by the Houston Press Club and Texas Associated Press.
Randy was Texas Public Radio's Classical Music Director until 2013 and the longest-serving employee in Texas Public Radio's history. He hosted the very first airshift on KPAC when the station went on the air at 90.9 FM in San Antonio back in November, 1982.