Yunchan Lim, an 18 year old boy from South Korea took the world by storm and massively shocked everyone with his recent performance in this summer’s Van Cliburn competition. The Van Cliburn is an extremely well known and prestigious competition held once every four years and defines many performers and prize winners’ future careers. Some are able to develop a successful career as a concert pianist from winning this competition and it serves to show the magnitude and stakes present at such an event.
The competition’s first two rounds were relatively uneventful in comparison to what came next. In the semi-final round, Yunchan made the bold decision of performing Liszt’s twelve transcendental etudes, a grueling set of works that challenge even the most elite performers. Two of the most notable pieces of this set, Mazeppa and Feux Follets are among the hardest pieces present in all of standard piano repertoire. With such a large risk, the performance was bound to be a spectacle and could go either way for Yunchan ending with a strong advance to the final round or an unfortunate elimination. His performance was more than outstanding and highlighted the true virtuosity Yunchan possessed, making him a strong favorite for a winner and cemented him as an awe-inspiring performer. He meticulously planned out each and every piece and considered all aspects of phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and even color changes. One of the most engaging and unorthodox things he did was at the very beginning of his performance. As he entered the stage and sat down to perform, he began the piece almost with a sense of exigence and hurry before the applause even ended. It left a dramatic mark on the audience and established his presence in the concert hall.
My personal favorite of the etudes he performed was Chasse Neige, one of the more difficult etudes of the set and very difficult to pull off well. It is the last of the etudes in order and must instill a sense of resolve but also leave something for the listener to create for themselves which Yunchan did beautifully. He made his piece embody a dying wind, slowly fading away until nothing is left of it.
While Yunchan’s etudes were extremely impressive, the highlight of the competition and what shot him into the public eye catching so many people’s attention was his performance of Rachmaninoff’s third concerto. Notoriously known as the “most difficult concerto”, Yunchan undertook another hefty risk with such a piece and executed spectacularly. Most astounding was his ability to take a long term approach to the piece and play “structurally” which involves both being aware of trajectory and arrival points as well as having a pulse or beat throughout the piece which gives it a lifeline.
Throughout various points in the piece Yunchan uses unique voicings and approaches the piece in such an original way that it emanates temptation and a thirst for more. With the Rachmaninoff concerto, it is extremely easy to get lost in a sea of notes combined with the orchestral fury which creates a mess. However, Yunchan untangles this piece and manages to make it sound almost easy and pleasant for the ear, evoking emotions that could not be touched with many other performances. Many people who dislike Rachmaninoff or classical music in general have been swayed by this performance and realize the beauty of it. His greatness is rare especially in such a generation, and it provides inspiration and hope for many young pianists, as well as setting a bar for the standards necessary to become an acclaimed concert pianist. His story will live for many years to come and serves as a message for everyone to aspire to be their best no matter their age, ethnicity, background, or other adversities facing them.