I've been to so damn many concerts recently that I can't keep them straight. But one stands out.
This past Monday I went to a harpsichord recital at a home in Orinda. Zach Weiner was there, and I asked him if he was going to hear Rzewski's 'The People United' variations at 405 Shrader on Friday. He didn't know about this and asked who was playing. I said someone I hadn't heard of - Kevin Lee Sun. The guy next to Zach spoke up and said "that's me!". Small world. Turns out they know each other from Stanford undergrad. Kevin went on to med school but left to to pursue music, and is now a music prof at Duquesne.
So on Friday Maryse and I went to hear Kevin play the variations. It was, for me, a wonderful and powerfully inspiring experience.
405 Shrader is a small room with a Grotrian 7' piano. The place was packed. I got a glass of wine and settled in.
Kevin's performance was absolutely great. He feels and expresses the volcanic power of the piece, and he has the chops to play it exactly as he conceives it. The proximity of the piano and its volume made it a visceral and almost overwhelming experience.
When the piece ended, there was stunned silence, then riotous applause that lasted a LONG time.
There was wonderful socializing afterward. I talked with Kevin's father, from Beijing and now living in Sacramento. He acknowledged having initial doubts about Kevin's career choice. I talked with Michael Milenski, the proprietor of 405 Shrader, an intense intellectual/radical who reminds me a lot of myself.
Wow! Great event. This is why I go to concerts.
June 23, 2022
Olivia Giovetti, VAN Magazine
...Sun’s program also accentuated the folk music idioms that factored into the works he played by Hyo-shin Na, Leoš Janáček, Frederic Rzewski, and Schumann. They serve as wayfinders for the emotional truths, such as the beer-hall irony of Pete Seeger’s “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” barreling its way into Rzewski’s work of the same name, which Sun tore through with unfiltered frenzy. These mechanics complemented Na’s “Rain Study,” in which lyricism cuts through a stormy humidity like sunlight filtering through a diaphanous curtain, and the brute force and hellish rage of Rzewski resolved into a balm of two selections from Schumann’s “Gesänge der Frühe.” It was a tender, quiet relief that extended past Sun’s program into the other worlds...
April 16, 2021
Lowry Yankwich, 30 Bach: The Goldberg Variations Podcast
#30Bach, Episode 11, Variations 22-24: Interview with polymath pianist Kevin Lee Sun. We discuss sources of joy in Bach’s life, and his ability to conjure joy, warmth, and humor in his music as an antidote to the tragedy that follows.
February 24, 2020
Lyn Bronson, Peninsula Reviews
Kevin Lee Sun made quite a splash when he won the Grand Prize in the Carmel Music Society’s 2018 Biennial Piano Competition, and he reinforced this positive impression when he appeared as a recitalist on the Music Society’s regular concert season in January 2019. It was, however, noted in 2019, that Sun’s programming for this recital was odd. The most dramatic works that should have ended the program were scheduled in the first half so that the more problematic selections ended the program with a whimper rather than a bang. It so puzzled the audience that at the end of the program there was a weak standing ovation and no encore.
Well, in his recital yesterday afternoon for the Aptos Keyboard Series at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Baptist, he certainly got the programming concept right this time. Starting off with a slightly neutral performance of the Bach Toccata in F-sharp minor, BWV 910, an early work, Sun informed us, that might have originally been conceived for organ and influenced by Bach’s trip (250 miles on foot) to spend some time admiring the craftsmanship of Dieterich Buxtehude. The Bach Toccata was followed by an intense performance of Schubert’s Sonata in A minor, D. 845. From its very first notes we heard elegant and sensitive shaping of song-like phrases as well as lots of Sturm und Drang in the more passionate sections.
It was after intermission that Sun had his finest moments. The great surprise of the afternoon was his performance of a contemporary work, Rain Study, composed by Hyo-shin Na in 1999. Sun informed the audience that this work contained Korean idioms merged with western traditions and its central theme was the brevity of life — “Although the sun that sets will rise the next day, a life that passes will not rise again.”
This work featured a weaving in and out of sonorities that were constantly interrupted by melodic fragments and dissonant clusters of notes. The lovely ending of this work gave us an uneasy serenity as its final moments drifted off silently into the ether.
The program ended with a passionate and large-scaled performance of Schumann’s Kreisleriana — I say “large-scaled” because there were some strident percussive passages that threatened to overwhelm the piano. But, Sun’s performance was focussed and artistic in its absolute control of the eight sections of this work, each with its own charm and magic.
Sun took us on a wild journey, and we enjoyed it.
January 14, 2019
Scott MacClelland, Performing Arts Monterey Bay
THE WINNER of the 2018 Carmel Music Society piano competition, Kevin Lee Sun, redeemed his winning solo recital on Sunday afternoon with an oddly arcane program, a gutsy move to be sure since the audience thinned out considerably at intermission. Yet this young man, who played his entire program from memory, certainly has the talent, skills and multi-award-winning performance track record with which to make a career—unless he chooses in favor of medicine instead. (Nice to have so many choices on your plate at age 25!)
Arcane though it was, Sun’s program followed a certain logic. The first prelude and fugue from JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, whetted the ear, to be followed immediately by the Fantasia after JS Bach by Ferruccio Busoni, concocted in 1909. The piece references Bach’s use of three chorales, including “Christ, du bist der helle Tag” and “Lob se idem allmächtigen Gott.” But the most immediately recognizable was the advent carol “Gottes Sohn ist kommen,” whose melody, sung every Christmas season in a version known as “In dulce jubilo,” dates to the early 14th century and, for Bach and his contemporaries, was frequently harmonized as chorales. However, this conflation of Bach and Busoni is a pretentiously muddled affair—16 minutes in a performance that felt like 24, though no fault of Sun—appealing primarily to hot-shot virtuosi like Marc-André Hamelin whose glitz alone often carries the water for otherwise neglected piano composers of yesteryear. Frankly it’s a hard piece to take seriously; Bach barely rescues Busoni from himself. Sun, who plays with probing seriousness, should build his career on a sounder foundation.
(Meanwhile, I was dismayed and distracted by ushers seating late-comers into the auditorium ten minutes into the Busoni with noisy whispering, and, in the following Schubert, patrons making high-held cell-phone videos of the performance. Apparently, Sunset Center’s previously stated policies are no longer being enforced.)
Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy, D760, also a muddle of form as the musical term ‘fantasy’ usually implies—in this case sonata comingled with theme and variations—vacillates between major and minor. Nominally based on the composer’s earlier song, Der Wanderer, the 20-minute bluster sounds like a forced amalgam of Schubert and Beethoven and suffers from a near-inability to find which of the many suggested endings is the right one. As a great and loving fan of Schubert, I find this piece about as non-idiomatic of the composer’s natural style as one could get, though Sun muscled up big-time for the occasion.
Sun’s piano teacher at Stanford, Thomas Schultz, had every reason to take pride in his pupil, including the inclusion on the program of Variations (1990) by Hyo-Shin Na, Schultz’s Korean-born wife and a fine composer on her own terms. Absent program notes for the concert, one had to catch the piece on the fly. It was based essentially on an angular pentatonic theme of Korean or Chinese character, and arguably was the most truly confident performance by the pianist. A high point of the program it fed ears hungry for something fresh and, in modern terms, original.
Brahms’ early Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann, Op. 9, of 1854—Brahms was 21—is based on a the fourth of Schumann’s Bunte Blătter, (Album leaves) , and precociously mourns the untimely loss of his principal mentor. To close his recital, Sun chose the Romance No. 2 from Schumann’s Thee Romances, Op. 28, love-letters to his soon-to-be wife Clara just before her 21st birthday. Clara wrote to him on 1 January 1840 ‘… as your bride, you must indeed dedicate something further to me, and I know of nothing more tender than these 3 Romances, in particular the middle one, which is the most beautiful love duet.” As Brahms reminds us over and again, Schumann’s was one of the most original voices of the “romantic” 19th century.
January 14, 2019
Lyn Bronson, Peninsula Reviews
2018 Carmel Music Society Biennial Piano Competition winner Kevin Lee Sun appeared in recital yesterday afternoon at Sunset Center. It was, in retrospect, an oddly chosen program. The works on the first half, consisting of a Prelude & Fugue from Bach’s WTC II, the Fantasia nach J.S. Bach by Busoni and Schubert’s “Wanderer Fantasy,” were totally involving and demonstrated Sun’s ability to paint with a stunningly beautiful palette of colors while demonstrating a seemingly effortless total keyboard mastery. At the end of the first half, spontaneous bravos erupted from members of the audience, and he received a thunderous standing ovation.
These repertoire selections should have ended the program, because the works Sun performed on the second half — sets of variations by Hyo-shin Na and Brahms, plus a bland Romance by Schumann — were about as exciting as a firecracker on the Fifth of July. Although most artists would plan to end a recital, not with a whimper, but with a bang, both the Brahms Variations and the Schumann Romance faded away so quietly the audience seemed to be genuinely surprised when they were over, and not sure when to applaud. At the end of the concert there was a standing ovation, but the applause quickly faded, and there was no encore.
Unquestionably, Sun is a total musician from his toes to his fingertips, and his virtuosity knows no bounds. Most importantly, his virtuosity is often understated, since he uses it to serve and enhance the music and never for gratuitous display. His performance of the Bach Prelude & Fugue in C Major, BWV 870, was so natural and charming, you were genuinely sorry when it was over. His performance of Busoni’s Fantasia nach J.S. Bach was a revelation, for most of us in the audience were hearing this work for the first time and didn’t know quite what to expect. We heard homage to Bach with a definite romantic slant and a slight modern perspective. This performance pulled us into its spiritual core and immersed us in lovely, colorful solemnity until it finally reached a beautiful quiet ending that seemed inevitable and totally satisfying.
The greatest work on the program was Schubert’s mighty Wanderer Fantasie, Op. 15, one of the marvels of the piano literature. Although it is a work that some artists overplay and weaken with relentless pounding and excessive speed, Sun showed noble restraint that brought out the best moments in the setting of the the song that inspired the work, as well as in all the fiery Sturm und Drang that surrounds it. This was a gorgeous and masterful performance with beautiful cantabile and shaping of phrases. This was the best performance of this this work I have ever heard, and it was a performance I never wanted to end.
The novelty on the program was a set of variations by Hyo-shin Na, the wife of Kevin’s piano teacher at Stanford, Thomas Schultz. This was a 13-minute, well-crafted piece that began with an extended solo for left hand alone that bounced all over the keyboard while strongly favoring the bass register of the piano. The style was strongly rhythmic with punched out disjointed intervals that suggested a twentieth-century tone row on meth. Except for brief quasi-lyrical, moments of lyricism at four minutes and eleven minutes into the work, these variations pulled no punches. Although this is a challenging piece for the performer (and the audience as well), Kevin Lee Sun easily navigated his way through its thorny difficulties and managed to make it sound like a coherent and appealing work.
We would love to hear Kevin Lee Sun in a return engagement, and perhaps next time we could persuade him to play some Chopin. Speaking with him briefly after the concert, I asked him about Chopin. He smiled and made a dismissive gesture with his hand saying, “There is already too much Chopin.” I don’t agree with him about this. Alan Walker in his recently-published biography of Chopin says in his preface. “Wherever I am on earth, someone within a fifty-mile radius is either listening to or playing a work by Chopin.”
June 10, 2018
Lyn Bronson, Peninsula Reviews
It was a grand occasion for local piano buffs yesterday when the Carmel Music Society held its 40th Piano Competition at Sunset Center. Six finalists competed from 10:30 am to 3:00 pm, each playing a half-hour solo program. At 3:30 Dr. Anne Thorp, Co-President of the Carmel Music Society announced that the judges had selected 24-year-old Kevin Lee Sun from Sacramento as the Grand Prize Winner, who, in addition to his cash award, will be returning to Sunset Center at 3:00 pm on Sunday, January 13, 2019 to perform a full recital on the CMS regular subscription series. Dr. Thorp then announced that 29-year-old Xiao Chen, who holds a Master of Music degree from Juilliard and a DMA from UCLA, was awarded Second Prize, and 19-year-old Christopher Richardson, a much lauded competition winner who is currently a pre-med student at UC Berkeley, was awarded Third Prize.
After intermission we had an opportunity to hear Grand Prize Winner Kevin [Lee] Sun, who also seemed to have three different personas inhabiting his artistic soul. He played an elegant, extroverted Overture to Bach’s Partita No. 4, two lovely and expressive selections from Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke, D.946, and finally an over-the-top performance of the Gigue from Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25. I normally wouldn’t go out of my way to hear any of Schoenberg’s piano works. But, I shamefully admit my prejudice was misguided, and it was Kevin Sun who showed me the error of my ways. His performance of the Gigue was an eye-opening (and ear-opening) experience. We will look forward to his appearance in January for the CMS.
March 30, 2018
Stephen Smoliar, The Rehearsal Studio
Every now and then one encounters a student recital so imaginatively conceived and so confidently executed that it burns its way into mind’s long-term memory. Such was the case last night in the Osher Salon at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where graduating senior Edward Luengo presented his end-of-term cello recital. With a repertoire that allowed for four musical partners and extended from the end of the eighteenth century to the first decade of the current one, Luengo provided himself with a richly diverse palette with which to exercise his technical and expressive skills, both of which were firing on all cylinders.
The major works in each half of the program offered a stimulating balance of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The second half was dominated by Johannes Brahms’ Opus 99 (second) sonata in F major. Separated by two decades, one might say (at the risk of sounding too reductive) that the first of the cello sonatas (Opus 38 in E minor) is highly introverted, while Opus 99 is vigorously extroverted. There is even an energetic buzz to the pizzicato passages in the second (Adagio affettuoso) that seems to invite the listener into what might have been taken as a private space.
The fact is that each movement has its own characteristic set of personality traits. Working effectively with accompanist Kevin Lee Sun, Luengo knew how to mine each movement for its own individual traits and then tie them all together in his journey through the sonata’s four movements. This was a delightful reminder that, no matter how many times one has previously encountered this sonata, there will always be fresh ways to enjoy the listening experience.