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South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim, 18, wins the 2022 Van Cliburn International Competition

One of the world’s highest-visibility classical music competitions concluded Saturday in Fort Worth.

Update: This story has been updated with winners' comments at a post-ceremony news conference.

FORT WORTH — At a news conference of international musicians, Yunchan Lim, 18, spoke softly and a mop of hair fell nearly to his eyes. The South Korean pianist had become the youngest gold medal winner in the 60-year history of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.

Even his competitors were impressed.

“This young man is just incredible,” said Ukrainian pianist Dmytro Choni.

An awards ceremony Saturday night in Bass Performance Hall brought an end to a grueling 17-day schedule of solo recitals and concerto performances with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra by 30 young pianists from 15 countries (two competitors claimed double nationalities). Lim is the second South Korean in a row, after 2017′s Yekwon Sunwoo, to win the top prize.

The second-prize silver medal went to the oldest of the competitors, 31-year-old Russian Anna Geniushene, and the third-prize bronze medal to Choni, 28.

One of the world’s highest-visibility classical music contests, the Cliburn presents cash awards of $100,000, $50,000 and $25,000 to its three top winners. More valuable almost certainly are guarantees of three years of concert tours and career management. Selections were made by an international jury including prominent concert pianists, with conductor Marin Alsop as chair.

In addition to live audiences in Fort Worth, the contest was followed avidly by other pianists, teachers, conductors and artist managers around the world via livestreams and recordings.

Lim’s stunningly virtuosic and mature performance of the Liszt Transcendental Etudes in the semifinal round carried the day, and he also took two other awards. Here’s an enormous talent to watch.

Geniushene is clearly a solid and substantial musician. Her performances of Brahms’ Op. 10 Rhapsodies and Beethoven’s Op. 33 Bagatelles were magical.

Choni offered playing at once sophisticated and natural, and he’s clearly another major talent.

Lim, a student at the Korea National University of Arts in Seoul, said after the awards ceremony that he’ll need to talk with his teacher to figure out how to balance his education with his new career opportunities. When asked what he would like to add to his performance repertoire, now that he has the backing of the Cliburn, he responded with Bach’s daunting Goldberg Variations.

This year's Van Cliburn gold medalist Yunchan Lim, 18, of South Korea, signs his autograph...
This year's Van Cliburn gold medalist Yunchan Lim, 18, of South Korea, signs his autograph for Sophia Hackler, 15, of California, before the start of the awards ceremony.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

Lim seems to relish tackling difficult pieces. About his decision to play the complete Transcendental Etudes in the semifinal round, he said he chose them for the challenge. These works, which 2013 Cliburn gold medalist Vadym Kholodenko also performed when he won, are among the most technically demanding in the piano repertoire.

Geniushene, who is 6 ½ months pregnant, faced a different kind of challenge at the Cliburn.

“It’s incredibly challenging to play octaves in the Tchaikovsky concerto with this belly,” she said, adding that she is used to playing while pregnant, having done so before her first child was born.

Bronze medal winner Dmytro Choni, 28, of Ukraine and silver medal winner Anna Geniushene,...
Bronze medal winner Dmytro Choni, 28, of Ukraine and silver medal winner Anna Geniushene, 31, of Russia, take their bows.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

The final concertos with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, led by Alsop, featured pianists from three countries in the news lately: Ukraine (Choni), Russia (Geniushene) and Belarus (Uladzislau Khandohi).

At the ceremony, Alsop congratulated the finalists. “I so enjoyed working with each of you,” she said, her voice welling with emotion. “I can’t wait to collaborate again in the near future.”

She also thanked the orchestra, which played a demanding schedule of wide-ranging works, some several times. “I felt like they tried to play Rachmaninoff Three as though it were the first time, every time,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience.

The Saturday night ceremony presented numerous other awards.

Each of three finalists who didn’t win a medal — Uladzislau Khandohi from Belarus, Ilya Shmukler from Russia and Clayton Stephenson from the United States — received a $10,000 cash award. Semifinalists received $5,000 each, quarterfinalists $2,500, preliminary round competitors $1,000. Other awards worth thousands also were announced.

Jury Discretionary Awards, $4,000 each:

  • Patricia and Neal Steffen Family Jury Discretionary Award: Andrew Li, 18, United States
  • Raymond E. Buck Jury Discretionary Award: Changyong Shin, 28, South Korea
  • John Giordano Jury Chairman Discretionary Award: Marcel Takokoro, 28, France/Japan

Other awards were:

  • $5,000 Beverley Taylor Smith Award for Best Performance of a New Work (this year, competition juror Stephen Hough’s Fanfare Toccata): Yunchan Lim
  • $5,000 Best Performance of the Mozart Concerto: Ilya Shmukler, 27, Russia
  • $2,500 Carla and Kelly Thompson Audience Award: Yunchan Lim

Pandemic delay

The normally quadrennial Cliburn was delayed one year by the pandemic. The competition is named after Texas-raised pianist Van Cliburn, whose win at the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958, at the height of Cold War tensions, catapulted him to instant fame. The competition was launched four years later by Fort Worth fans of the pianist, who moved to the city in 1986 and spoke at awards ceremonies before his death in February 2013.

Screening auditions identified 30 competitors ages 18 to 31. During the first three rounds, the list of competitors was narrowed to six finalists.

There were some changes this year. Preliminary and quarterfinal rounds, devoted to solo recitals, were held not at Bass Performance Hall, but at Texas Christian University’s handsome new 717-seat Van Cliburn Concert Hall.

Then at Bass Hall, each of 12 semifinalists played a 60-minute solo recital and, with the FWSO and guest conductor Nicholas McGegan, a Mozart piano concerto. The Mozart concerto performances replaced a chamber music round that had been a Cliburn staple.

This represented a third concerto in advance of the traditional two contrasting ones in the final round. Alsop conducted the final round performances.

The shadow of war

The Russian invasion of Ukraine loomed over this year’s Cliburn.

The Cliburn’s decision to let Russians compete in March triggered backlash from some who thought they should be banned. Both the Dublin and Honens Piano Competitions initially decided to ban Russians, later reversing course.

“We’ve been talking about giving a platform to young musicians, from wherever they are, and will not discriminate,” said Jacques Marquis, president and CEO of the Cliburn.

“Naturally, if someone would have been in support of war, we would have the need to disqualify and send home anybody. But we still believe these young musicians have nothing to do with this.”

Cliburn musicians from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus knew each other from the international competition circuit, and were seen talking in Russian about musical matters. At the awards ceremony, Geniushene embraced Kyiv-born Choni on stage after being announced as the silver medalist.

After Choni’s final performance on Saturday, an audience member in a blue dress ran up to the stage and handed him a bouquet of sunflowers, the Ukrainian national flower that has come to symbolize Ukrainian resistance.

Later, at the awards ceremony, Kholodenko, the 2013 Cliburn gold medalist who was also born in Kyiv, stirringly played the Ukrainian national anthem. He wore on his suit lapel a ribbon in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Photographers swarmed Choni, near the front of the audience, as the anthem’s lyrics appeared on a screen in Ukrainian and English.

When he finished, Kholodenko bowed and left the stage in silence.

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