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SF Symphony features Van Cliburn Award winner

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Santa Fe Symphony will open its season with Van Cliburn Award-winning pianist Yekwon Sunwoo performing Brahms’ masterpiece at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Sunday.

The composer’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major compares with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in complexity, virtuosity and heft, symphony conductor Guillermo Figueroa said.

“The Brahms is quite possibly the greatest piano concerto ever written,” he said. “It’s huge, it’s big; it’s a nearly 45-minute work. It’s essentially a symphony with piano.”

The 28-year-old South Korean pianist won the contest’s gold medal in June, besting 29 rivals for the prestigious prize.

“The fact that he chose the Brahms concerto tells me a lot, because many young pianists want to show off with Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninoff,” Figueroa said. “It’s incredibly difficult and virtuosic. It’s one of Brahms’ great masterpieces.”

Completed in 1881 near Vienna, the concerto features four instead of the customary three movements, scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings. After sending it to a friend, Brahms described it as “some little piano pieces.” He referred to the stormy scherzo as a “little wisp of a scherzo.”

“Brahms gives so much for the orchestra to play; it’s not just an accompaniment,” Figueroa said.

The concert will close with Elgar’s Enigma Variations, op. 36, a piece the composer wrote in honor of his friends. Written in 1898 and 1899, the orchestral work features 14 variations on an original theme.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Figueroa said. “It has one of the most fascinating pieces of music —— the ‘Nimrod.’ ”

The famous section appeared in the 1998 biographical movie “Elizabeth,” starring Cate Blanchett.

The Enigma is widely believed to contain a hidden melody; a puzzle that has never been solved.

“Each variation depicts a different friend of Elgar,” Figueroa said. “He only gave very cryptic clues of who was being depicted. Elgar claimed there was a hidden theme underneath it all that doesn’t quite appear. Nobody has come up with a reasonable explanation for that. His music is always full of hidden themes and hidden meanings.”