South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim clinched the gold medal and became the youngest musician ever in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition’s 60-year history to win first place.

Silver medalist Anna Geniushene became the competition’s oldest medalist ever at age 31, and Ukraine’s Dmytro Choni, 28, took home the bronze.

Had the COVID-19 pandemic not forced the Cliburn to postpone their 2021 competition, Lim would have been too young to apply until the next cycle in 2025. As a result of the schedule change, the competition, which usually only includes pianists between 18-30, expanded its eligibility by one year to allow pianists who turned 31 to apply. 

Marin Alsop, who was the first woman to take the helm of a major American orchestra and the sole conductor to win a MacArthur fellowship, served as the competition’s jury chair.

The pressure on these young people is enormous,” Alsop said of the contest, which began on the second of the month and ended June 18. “It’s not just a marathon. It’s an ultra marathon. You know, it’s like the 100-mile run, not 26 miles.

The jury’s ballots are cast anonymously. As the chair, Alsop’s main role was to make sure the jury votes independently by preventing them from discussing performances together. She would only cast a ballot in the event of a tie.

But Alsop also had the opportunity to conduct each of the six finalists alongside the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.

When one of the pianists admitted that they were nervous backstage, she employed her signature wit to calm them down.

“We’re just going to have fun, then it’s going to be over and you’re going to get some dinner,” Alsop recalled. “It’s music. It’s not surgery. Let’s try to have fun. … They have long careers ahead of them and they have to learn to manage this extraordinary pressure.” 

The 18-year-old Lim said he’s been a fan of Alsop’s “since he was young” when he saw her conducting at the Queen Elisabeth Competition

Their rendition of Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30” had Bass Hall buzzing. 

Seeing that performance live was a highlight for Seong Hun Jeong and Gyuwan Kim, who traveled to Fort Worth from Korea.

“I am so happy to be here and to see a Korean win first prize,” Jeong said.

“We are very proud of him,” Kim concurred. “Last time (in 2017) when Yekwon Sunwoo won, I was here, too.” 

At a press conference, Lim explained how he was able to perform such a cohesive program with the symphony.

“I opened my heart to the orchestra, and orchestra members were perhaps able to meet with me with their hearts (too),” Lim said through an interpreter. “So we were all engrossed in the music, and we were able to play together like that.

Maria Fawcett was also impressed by Lim’s performance — as well as Genuishene’s and Choni’s — that she guessed all three would medal, though she wasn’t sure of the exact order.

She said multiple performances throughout the competition moved her to tears, including Genuishene’s final performance.

“What’s totally amazing about Anna is she has power,” Fawcett explained. “But she (also) has this tremendous ability to make you want to listen — not that the rest of them don’t — but she has this huge palette of colors that she can produce on the piano, and it’s all intentional. She really thinks it through.”

Geniushene for her part, demurred at the post-award ceremony press conference and admitted that she nearly withdrew from the competition in April because, at the time, she hadn’t been able to practice.

Actually it was quite surprising for me even to travel here and to participate in the first round,” she shared. “The more I advanced, the more I was surprised. So right after that (announcement) … I am overwhelmed by the emotions.”

The day before his final performance Choni told the press that he did not expect to win nor was he thinking about it. 

Many people do not understand that a piano competition or any musical competition is not a sport. It’s not that the one who runs faster wins … It’s very much based, in my opinion, on (the) personal taste of the musicians in the jury … I’m just honored and happy to be part of this competition, to be part of the final group, and (I am) happy to get on stage every time I can,” he explained.

After his third-place win was announced, he remained humble.

“I’m very grateful to the jury for awarding me the prize. I just feel very happy that I could share my music with your wonderful audience.”

In addition to cash prizes of $100,000, $50,000 and $25,000 for their respective medals, all three will also have a career management package through the Cliburn for the next three years, helping them to book concerts, communicate with the press and utilize social media.

Hours before the jury selected this year’s winners, Lim told the press that he made up his mind about how he wanted to spend his future, regardless of the ultimate result.

“I made up my mind that I will live my life only for the sake of music, and I decided that I will give up everything for music,” Lim’s interpreter relayed. “I’d like to go deep into the mountains and just live with my piano, but then I won’t have any income, so that would be a problem. So I came here.”

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here

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Marcheta Fornoff

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...