New Gilmore Star Blechacz To Join Silver Celebration

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Rafal Blechacz made his orchestral recording debut in 2009 with the Chopin piano concertos, Jerzy Semkow and the Concertgebouw. (© Rainer Maillard-DG)
Gilmore Artist Rafal Blechacz, now 28, made his first orchestral recording  in 2009 with the Concertgebouw.
(© Rainer Maillard-Deutsche Grammophon)
By Lawrence B. Johnson

Pianist Rafal Blechacz, 28-year-old winner of the 2014 Gilmore International Keyboard Festival Artist Award, laughs as he recalls how he found out about the prize that brought him $50,000 in cash and another $250,000 worth of career opportunities.

It’s always a surprise, the fabulous award made every four years by the Kalamazoo (Mich.)-based Gilmore, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a profusion of concerts that continue through May 10.  Blechacz performs with the Kalamazoo Symphony on May 3 and gives a solo recital May 6.

Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz is the winner of the 2014 Gilmore Artist Award (© Felix Broede-Deutsche Grammophon)
Blechacz records for Deutsche Grammophon. (© Felix Broede-DG)

Festival director Daniel Gustin and half a dozen judges, whom he secretly hand picks, prowl the world’s concert halls, unannounced, listening to finalists from a long list of nominees as they play recitals, chamber music, and concertos. The eavesdropping experts then compare notes, pick a winner, and leave it to Gustin to spring the surprise.

“I was in Berlin when I got an email from Dan saying he was coming to Europe and wanted to meet with me,” says Blechacz (pronounced BLAY-hahtch), who also won the International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in 2005. “I proposed Berlin, which is not far from my home in Poland. It was July, last year. I absolutely didn’t know what he might want to talk about – maybe the repertoire for my visit to the Gilmore Festival in May. I even thought he might want to discuss my fee.

“In the end, I got into heavy traffic and kept him waiting at the hotel for fifteen or twenty minutes. When he finally told me why he was really there, I was glad I was sitting down. I would have fallen down.”

Kirill Gerstein (2010) Ingrid Fliter (2006) Piotr Anderszewski (2002)
Gilmore Artists: Gerstein (top, 2010),
Fliter (2006), Anderszewski (2002)

Actually, the soft-spoken pianist, who says he modeled himself after Arthur Rubinstein and whose articulate, fluid playing indeed reflects that influence, was the last man standing after a three-year elimination that winnowed a starting list of several hundred candidates solicited from music professionals around the world.

Now Blechacz finds himself headed to Kalamazoo as the newest star in a constellation of Gilmore winners. Three former laureates also will perform during the silver anniversary fête April 25-May 10 — Piotr Anderszewski (Poland, 2002), Kirill Gerstein (U.S., 2010), and Ingrid Fliter (Argentina, 2006). Earlier winners not appearing are David Owen Norris (England, 1991), Ralf Gothóni (Finland, 1994), and Leif Ove Andsnes (Norway, 1998).

Blechacz’s recital fare will range from Bach and Beethoven to Chopin; with the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra he will play two concertos on one program, the Mozart 24th and the Beethoven Third. For this pianist, the programming mix is significant.

After he won the Chopin competition, Blechacz encountered a public clamor everywhere for the mazurkas, waltzes, ballades, and polonaises by his great countryman. But while the Gilmore prize has raised his international profile, it has not brought a resurgence of the demand for more Chopin.

Blechacz  recorded the Chopin Polonaises in 2013.Not that Blechacz doesn’t thrive there. His 2013 recording of the seven polonaises (Deutsche Grammophon) bears witness to an easy affinity for Chopin’s supple rhythms and often shadowed poetics, as in the E-flat minor, Op. 26, No. 2. And where the popular A-flat major, Op. 53 (“Heroic”), calls for grandeur, Blechacz delivers in stunning fashion.

In 2009, he made his orchestral recording debut in a pairing of Chopin’s piano concertos with the Amsterdam Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and conductor Jerzy Semkow. But Blechacz also welcomes any chance to expand into the Classical repertoire, where he sees a profound connection with Chopin.

“Chopin was greatly influenced by Mozart and the Classical style, and I sense that very much when I play the polonaises and mazurkas,” he says. “In Bach you hear the counterpoint Chopin wrote in the late mazurkas and nocturnes. And he loved Mozart, especially the operas because of their melodic clarity. That influence is quite strong in early compositions like the piano concertos and the first sonata.

“It’s very important to play Debussy also – which helped me prepare for the Chopin Competition. Debussy made me more sensitive to color, to the shape of sound.”

Rafal Blechacz is mulling the purchase of a piano with some of his Gilmore money. (© Felix Broede-DG)
Blechacz makes his Carnegie Hall debut in October. (© Broede-DG)

Those connections were born out when Blechacz previewed his Gilmore Festival recital with a many-splendored performance of the same program April 25 at the University of Chicago. After an incisive, really quite harpsichord-like turn through Bach’s Partita No. 3 in A minor and a dramatically charged account of Beethoven’s Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (Pathetique), the pianist effectively sublimated those technical and conceptual qualities in stunning selections from Chopin – notably a turbulent Polonaise in C minor, Op. 40, No. 2; three vivacious Mazurkas, Op. 63; and a hair-raising, yet finely wrought Scherzo in C-sharp minor, Op. 39.

On Blechacz’s horizon looms an “important” Carnegie Hall debut in October, and he’s mentally running his fingers over the keyboard of the new piano he plans to buy with some of the $250,000 Gilmore reserve prize. Withdrawals from that stash must be approved by festival director Gustin. Most of the laureates have acquired pianos, Gustin says, but the money also has gone to commission new works and to fund time off for musical studies.

Leif Ove Andsnes (1998) Ralf Gothóni (1994) David Owen Norris (1991)
Gilmore artists Andsnes (top, 1998),
Gothóni (1994), Norris (1991)

“Competitions have a place in artists’ lives,” he says, “and the really good ones have validity. But there are way too many of them, and most of them don’t mean a damn thing to the winners. The problem with competitions is that they provide the judges with two or three snapshots of an artist working under a certain kind of pressure. What we do is labor-intensive and very expensive. This format was chosen after a great deal of debate. We didn’t want to create just another competition, and ultimately settled on the MacArthur (‘genius’) Award as our model.”

The sweepstakes begins with an initial filtering of 400 to 500 nominees. After further distillations, when the list of candidates gets down to a manageable 20 or 30, Gustin and his anonymous collaborators commence their lengthy, globe-trotting series of on-site evaluations, sometimes singly, other times by twos or threes. The ultimate choice, he says, has usually been pretty clear-cut.

Gustin has a story about the reaction of every astonished winner since he became the festival’s executive director in 2000. But his favorite was Ingrid Fliter’s.

“I took her to lunch to tell her. She didn’t say anything. She just got up, walked over and gave me a big hug.”

After which, one surmises, the pianist went shopping for a new instrument.

Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music and theater critic for The Detroit News. He has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and various national publications.

1 COMMENT

  1. I know about Artist Rafal Blechacz. He is a great keyboard artist and he is worthy of this Gilmore International Keyboard Festival Artist Award.

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