On This Day
20 March: Yunchan Lim Was Born

As the youngest pianist ever, South Korean pianist Yunchan Lim won the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition at the age of eighteen. His gold medal performance showcased a “magical ability” and “a natural, instinctive quality.” Jury Chair Marin Alsop called him “a musician way beyond his years, technically, he’s phenomenal, and the colours and dynamics are phenomenal. He’s incredibly musical and seems like a very old soul. It’s really quite something.”

Yuanchan Lim Performs Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 5 “Feux Follets”

Alternative to Taekwondo

Yunchan Lim was born in Siheung, a city of roughly half a million inhabitants in the South Korean Gyeonggi Province, on 20 March 2004. There were no musicians in his family, but when he reached the second grade of elementary school, his mother suggested that he try and learn an instrument.

Yunchan Lim as a young boy

Yunchan Lim as a young boy

In fact, Yunchan had seen an advertisement for a local music talent academy. According to Yunchan, “I went to the piano academy in my apartment complex because I was bored while my friends were doing taekwondo. That’s how I got into music.” In the event, he passed the audition but the teachers at the academy kept telling him that he didn’t have a solid musical foundation.

He entered the Music Academy of the Music of the Seoul Arts Center a year later. “From the moment I touched the piano, I wanted to be a great musician, even though there was a lot of opposition and concern around me,” he said, apparently referring to parental concerns about making music a career.

Federico Mompou: Scènes d’enfants: Jeunes filles au jardin (Yunchan Lim, piano)

Minsoo Sohn

Yunchan Lim and his teacher Minsoo Sohn

Yunchan Lim and his teacher Minsoo Sohn

During his first year, he was frequently compared to students who had received intense training on the piano from an early age. However, he did not get discouraged; the mean-spirited comments just strengthened his resolve. By the time he was 9, he was playing the “piano seriously,” and four years later, he auditioned for and was accepted into the Korean National Institute for the Gifted in Arts.

Lim quickly became immersed in his musical studies, and Minsoo Sohn became his teacher and mentor. Sohn is a prize-winning pianist in his own right, who joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory in Boston, his alma mater. According to Sohn, Lim was “born to perform,” referring to the explosive metamorphosis this typically quiet and soft-spoken pianist undergoes upon taking the stage.

Yuanchan Lim Performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37

Time Traveller

Sohn called his student a “time traveller,” because his immersion in music reminds him of someone living in the 18th or 19th century. Lim severely limits his use of social media, “because he believes it is corrosive to creativity” and because he “wants to live as much as possible as his favourite composers did.”

Yunchan Lim playing at the Van Cliburn Competition, with Marin Alsop as the conductor

Yunchan Lim playing at the Van Cliburn Competition, with Marin Alsop as the conductor © Ralph Lauer/The Cliburn

He has inspired a devout following around the world and has been described as classical music’s answer to K-pop. Walking the streets of Seoul, you won’t be surprised to see his face printed on T-shirts and various everyday items. Yet, Lim is not drawn to attention at all. “He does not believe he has any musical talent,” and “would be content to spend his life alone in the mountains playing piano all day.”

Alexander Scriabin: 2 Poemes, Op. 69: No. 1. Allegretto (Yunchan Lim, piano)
Alexander Scriabin: 3 Pieces, Op. 45: No. 1. Feuillet d’album (Yunchan Lim, piano)

First Competitions

Yunchan Lim in the final round of the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition

Yunchan Lim in the final round of the 16th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in June 2022 © The Cliburn via AP

At the age of 14, Yuanchan entered the international music stage by winning second prize and the Chopin Special Award in his first-ever competition, the Cleveland International Piano Competition for Young Artists. The same year, he participated in the Cooper International Competition, where he won the third prize and the audience prize, and he was invited to perform with the Cleveland Orchestra.

At the tender age of 15, he became the youngest winner of the IsangYun International Competition in Korea. He also took home two special prizes. Yuanchan strongly believes that “a famous performer and an earnest performer,” what he calls a true artist, “are two different things.” Apparently, he is trying to find and study new songs until “I’ve mastered the world’s entire repertoire.”

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Yuanchan Lim Performs Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

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