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[Herald Review] 'Crescendo' unveils Lim Yun-chan's rise to top at Van Cliburn

By Park Ga-young

Published : Dec. 19, 2023 - 00:56

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"Crescendo" (AUD)

“South Korean pianist Lim Yun-chan becomes the youngest winner of Van Cliburn Int'l Piano Competition,” The Korea Herald’s headline read when Lim triumphed at the competition in June 2022.

For those whose interest lies beyond the headlines -- perhaps fierce tension and other participants who left the competition empty-handed or why they participated in the competition in the first place and how the youngest Korean participant slowly grabbed the hearts of the judge, audience and orchestra -- a new documentary film shows just that.

The motivation to turn regular a video recording of the competition into a film called “Crescendo” came about because of the youngest winner of the competition, and its main focus is indeed on him. However, it also shows the intimate stories of the other 29 competitors from all around the world. From the orientation round, an initial pool of 30 - all the world’s most promising young pianists between the ages of 18 and 31 -- descended on Fort Worth, Texas, to prove their mettle.

Lim Yun-chan (center), gold medalist at the 17th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, poses with silver medalist Anna Geniushene (left) from Russia and bronze medalist Dmytro Choni from Ukraine. (Van Cliburn International Piano Competition) Lim Yun-chan (center), gold medalist at the 17th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, poses with silver medalist Anna Geniushene (left) from Russia and bronze medalist Dmytro Choni from Ukraine. (Van Cliburn International Piano Competition)

Clayton Stephenson began taking piano lessons as a child because it was only $5 more than the cost of a regular babysitter. Russian pianist Ilya Shmukler took a second stab at the Van Cliburn, returning after five years, and managed to advance as one of six finalists. Denis Linnik was worried about his physical condition in the morning.

The 30 participants were reduced to 18 after each participated in a 40-minute recital in the first round. As competition intensified, the field narrowed to 12, ultimately leading to the revelation of the six finalists.

Anna Geniushene, 31, from Russia, was a mother with another on the way during the competition, adding a further dimension to the situation of the silver medal winner hailing from Russia and the bronze winner, Dmytro Choni, coming from Ukraine, only months since Russia's invasion of Ukraine had begun.

The documentary also delves into how the acclaimed Van Cliburn International Piano Competition operates, and how a competition named after the legendary American pianist came into existence. They choose their turn order in the first round after drawing numbers to pick their order for their 40-minute recitals. It was interesting to see that all the Korean participants chose the third of the three days, with Lim opting to go last overall.

"Crescendo" (AUD)

Lim appears in earnest 40 minutes into the 111-minute documentary. Although the focus on him comes later in the film, it will doubtlessly satisfy Lim’s fans with interviews in both English and Korean along with his performances at each step.

The documentary shows how Lim -- a slow speaker in Korean and English alike -- turns into a completely different person when he sits at the piano.

The documentary eventually zeroes in on Lim's rendition of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 30, in collaboration with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marin Alsop. The notable performance has garnered over 13 million views on YouTube. The sensation he created with the performance did not just touch the audience, who erupted into a standing ovation; several members of the orchestra reached out to him afterward with such comments as, "I'll remember this performance forever."

“Van Cliburn’s Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 3 performance in 1958 marked the beginning of his rise to international stardom. At a tense moment in the Cold War, Van bridged the gap between countries, languages and cultures. We felt as if we were watching the same transformation happen in real time (amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine) with Yun-chan. We thought it would be important to show the power of music across time and moments in history,” said Heather Wilk, who directed and produced the film.

"The music is the most beautiful thing in the world, so to bring out that into the real world, it is a musician’s duty to go through a difficult thing," Lim says in the documentary after winning the competition.

When he returned to Fort Worth months later in September that year for another performance, Lim, clad in a pink jacket, replied "nothing has changed" when asked about his life since the competition.