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A 15-year-old South Korean takes top Cliburn Junior Piano prize in Dallas

 3 young man standing by a piano
Ralph Lauer
The Cliburn
Cliburn Jr. winner Seokyoung Hong, 15, from South Korea stands in the center. To his right is 2nd place pianist Yifan Wu, of China and to Hong's left is 16 year-old Jan Schulmeister, Czechia, who took 3rd. Hong's winning performance with the orchestra was Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

The grand finale of this Cliburn Junior competition capped off 10 days of intense recitals and competition.

Saturday, three finalists played a different piano concerto with the Dallas symphony, led by conductor Valentina Peleggi.

First place winner Seokyoung Hong, from South Korea, played Rachmaninoff’’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Second place finisher Yifan Wu, 14, from China, performed Chopin’s 1st Piano Concerto.

Jan Schulmeister, 16, from Czechia, played Saint-Saens’ Concerto Number 2.

Each received a standing ovation at the end of their concerto performance.

Their journey to Saturday began10 days earlier on the campus of Southern Methodist University, in Dallas. That’s where this third iteration of the Cliburn International Junior competition was held. Four years ago, SMU hosted it in Dallas as well. Cliburn’s Junior contest is for the world’s top pianists aged 13-17.

From June 8 to June 17, SMU hosted 23 competitors and 14 festival participants. Those 14 applied to compete, weren’t chosen, but were invited to join all the events, gratis. So all 37 young pianists either competed, took classes, performed for the public, attended master classes with professional and touring pianists and took other classes over nearly two weeks.

After several rounds of competition performances, Hong emerged to win the top prize of $15,000 cash. $10,000 cash went to the second place finisher Yifan Wu, and $5,000 went to Schulmeister. All three also receive a $2,500 scholarship to further music their education.

Janina Fialkowska led the 8 member jury. She said picking Hong was an easy choice for her. No jurors consulted with the others before making their picks.

“From the very first notes this boy played, you know, there's a feeling in the room that this is it. I don't think there's any doubt for the first prize at all,” said Fialkowska.

Jury member Jeffrey Swann agreed, saying Hong was an easy top choice. The other two were harder. He said it used to be judges would eliminate players based on their mistakes, but now, he focuses on what they do best.

“The positive qualities, comparing positive qualities is much more difficult because they have different positive qualities. They play different repertoire,” Swann said. But in the end, he believes the judges got it right.

As for winner Hong, he felt happy to win, but also felt sad for his competitor- friends. They urged him not to feel bad because they didn’t.

Third place finisher Jan Schulmeister said “I'm absolutely not sad. I'm so happy that I got the opportunity to be here to make so much new friends feel such a wonderful atmosphere. So I'm really extremely happy.

Wu agreed. “I’m very happy,” he said. “It’s exciting!”

In addition the other semifinalists receive $2,500 cash. They included Zihan Jin and Zhonghua Wei from China, and Modan Oyama of Japan.

A $500 audience prize went to Mr. Hong.

The next Cliburn Junior is scheduled four years from now, and once again at SMU in Dallas.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.