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Yeol-eum Son: Young Pianist of Rare Power, Elegance

by Steve Row

November 17, 2009, Greenville, NC: The S. Rudolph Alexander Performing Arts Series at East Carolina University has developed an interesting relationship with a top-level piano competition that frequently results in a stop by a prize-winning pianist on nationwide tour. The names might not be well known yet, but these top prize winners in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, as young stars on the rise, have given recitals that blend technical skill with consummate musical artistry.

Such was the case when 23-year-old South Korean pianist Yeol-eum Son, silver medal winner in the recent 13th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, came to Wright Auditorium and delivered a knock-your-socks-off recital that left audience members talking well after the event.

Ms. Son treated the audience to three selections that she played in various stages of the competition: the powerful Sonata for Piano, Op. 26, by Samuel Barber, the more intricate Preludes Book I by Claude Debussy, with all their sharp contrasts, and a fiery and, at times, jaw dropping performance of the "Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes from Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus" by Leopold Godowsky. But as if to show that her prize was no mistake, Ms. Son also gave wonderful readings of Bach's Partita No. 6 in E-minor, S.830, three Chopin waltzes, and three of Scriabin's Op. 8 Études. Each group of pieces had its own set of technical, physical, emotional and musical demands.

Ms. Son played with energy and passion for more than 90 minutes, often with such intensity and strength that one wondered how she would return from having played one piece to meet the demands of the next selection.  The liquid arpeggios (as in the opening toccata of the Bach Partita, or in the second movement, "Allegro vivace e leggero," of the Barber sonata) almost floated off the keyboard. The dense clusters of notes in several sections of the Barber Sonata, and the intensely rich, nearly over-the-top, mixture of familiar themes throughout the Godowsky composition made one wonder, if only briefly, how only two hands could create such sounds.

Make no mistake, however, Ms. Son was not all about power or bombast.  She frequently displayed deep emotion, and it sometimes appeared as if she were caressing the keyboard, if not the whole instrument, while seeming to move her body into the depths of the music. She gave a particularly tender reading of Debussy's "Girl With the Flaxen Hair," the last piece in the Preludes, occasionally infusing an extra beat or two of silence at the end of a phrase. In the Scriabin Études she offered a nice contrast between the opening allegro movement, the more melancholy andante movement and the powerful closing patetico movement. The fugues in the Bach Partita were played with crispness and elegance without sounding mechanical. The cascading notes that came around in more than one selection did, in fact, cascade without crashing. The right-hand melodies of the two more familiar Chopin waltzes (No. 9 in A-flat, Op. 69/1, and No. 11 in G-flat, Op. 70/1) were balanced nicely by a subtle yet almost surging three-quarter time accompaniment in the left hand.

Ms. Son already has played with symphony orchestras in Poland and Israel, and she played with the New York Philharmonic during its visit to Seoul, South Korea. She has shown equal skill in the chamber repertoire, having earned the award for best chamber music performance in the Van Cliburn competition for her performance of the Brahms Piano Quintet. During future tour stops, she will be playing concerti by Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Saint-Saëns.

Ms. Son's performance in Greenville, which covered such a wide range of musical styles, was dazzling. She is a young pianist to watch out for.

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