Yunchan Lim, back in Korea, says he and his piano are still the same

Pianist Yunchan Lim, 18, performs Scrabin's "Prelude Op. 37, No. 1" during the press conference held at the Lee Kang Sook hall of the Korea National University of Art’s Seocho Campus in southern Seoul on June 30. [KANG TAE-UK]

Pianist Yunchan Lim, who surprised the world with his performances during this year’s Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which came to an end on June 18 in Fort Worth, Texas, returned to Korea with a gold medal on June 29.

On Thursday, Lim met with the local press at the Lee Kang Sook hall of the Korea National University of Art’s Seocho Campus in southern Seoul, which he attends.

Lim’s teacher introduced himself first: “Hello, I’m pianist Sohn Min-soo.”

“Hi, I’m Yunchan Lim,” Lim said in a small voice, as if he felt awkward giving himself the title of pianist.

Lee Kang-ho, the head of Korea National University’s School of Music, also greeted reporters just before the start of the conference to express his “appreciation” toward Lim and his teacher, Prof. Sohn. The university head said he was already so used to calling Lim “our student” that he will have to get used to calling him “pianist Yunchan Lim from now on.”

Lim, who said he’s never received such a spotlight in his life before, didn’t make much of a comment about his win.

“I just want to say that there’s nothing different with me and my piano skills before and after the win,” he said, calmly. In fact, Lim has often expressed that he wishes to live in the mountains and just play the piano.

But his teacher seemed to be very proud of his student. “I was moved by his performance during the competition, even though he’s my student,” said Sohn. “I can’t believe this is happening to us. I feel proud as a musician, and I believe that the purity of music spoke to people. This is the reason why so many of us musicians do music.”

Lim has been a student of Sohn’s since he was 11, after joining the Korea National Institute for Gifted in Arts.

Critics often debate whether the gold medalist of a competition does or does not deserve the crown when some of the world’s most prestigious music competitions, like the Van Cliburn, come to an end. But after Lim’s win, no doubts were had. In fact, his final performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30 during the competition received a long, standing ovation. World-class conductor Marin Alsop was seen wiping tears from her eyes after the performance.

A video of Lim's Rachmaninov performance, uploaded 10 days ago on The Cliburn YouTube channel, surpassed 3.51 million views as of Thursday. It’s most viewed video on the channel.

At the competition, Lim was also awarded the Beverley Taloyr Smith Award for Best Performance of New Work and Carla and Kelly Thompson Audience Award.

Regarding his future plans, Lim said he will consult with his teacher and decide, though he wishes to “go into the mountains and play the piano all day long.”

Sohn said he’ll try to guide Lim, who is only 18, in the right direction, but said he’s been telling Lim recently that it’s he who has to make the final decision, and told him to talk to many other respected musicians and mentors to find his own way.

Throughout the press conference, Lim was very quiet and reserved, talking slowly and looking as though he was in shock from all the spotlight. But when asked why he admires musicians from the 19th century so much, he suddenly seemed to come alive.

Lim, left, and his teacher Prof. Sohn Min-soo attend the press conference held at the Lee Kang Sook hall of the Korea National University of Art’s Seocho Campus in southern Seoul on June 30. [KANG TAE-UK]

“I can learn so much from them,” Lim said. “Back then, they didn’t have smartphones, YouTube or access to the internet. All they had was the scores. It would’ve given them a lot of time, time to contemplate music and find new things from the music. I think that’s why their music is so creative and so original.”

With easy access to people’s performances on YouTube or the likes, Lim said he unconsciously gets influenced and finds himself mimicking what he likes about performances without truly understanding it.

“It’s a bad habit I think,” said Lim. “I want to model myself after the musicians of the early centuries."

Lim plans to hold a concert in the United States next month and tour Asian cities in November. His recital in Seoul will be on Dec. 10 at the Seoul Arts Center. Lim will be performing the pieces he played during the competition, including Beethoven’s Piano Concert No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37 and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 3 in D Minor, op. 30.