Polish pianist Rafał Blechacz, who at age 20 swept all five top prizes at the 2005 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, can now add another prestigious award to his collection. Early Wednesday, Blechacz was named the 2014 Gilmore Artist.
The Gilmore may not have quite the name recognition as the Chopin Competition, but it has a distinguished cachet of its own, plus a generous $300,000 cash award.
Actually, the Gilmore isn't a competition. Named for a Kalamazoo, Mich. businessman and philanthropist, the distinction is given every four years to a pianist who has no idea he or she is in the running for anything — not unlike the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" grants. The first Gilmore Artist, David Owen Norris, was selected in 1991, the year of the inaugural Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival. Other winners include Leif Ove Andsnes, Ingrid Fliter and Kirill Gerstein.
In an email exchange yesterday, Rafał Blechacz (RAH-fahl BLAY-hahtch) said that he had performed at the Gilmore Festival in 2008 but had never followed the award closely. "I didn't know I was under consideration or being observed, so the news came as a great surprise," he wrote. "I haven't yet decided what I will do with the funds. I have a few ideas, but I need time to allow thoughtful consideration to an award this important and substantial, and how it can be used to support my career."
Blechacz's career, so far, is tied closely to his compatriot Frederic Chopin, especially since that clean sweep in Warsaw. Blechacz won the overall top prize, plus awards for the best mazurka, polonaise, sonata and concerto performances. He's since recorded three all-Chopin albums.
"In Chopin's music there are a lot of emotions, a lot of different emotions. There are full palettes of emotions," Blechacz told Performance Today host Fred Child in 2010. "I think that my role, the pianist's role, is to enter into Chopin's feelings and recreate them afresh."
As a youngster growing up in north central Poland, Blechacz was fascinated by the church organ and had dreams of making it his instrument until piano lessons convinced him otherwise. He studied at the Artur Rubinstein State Music School in Bydgoszcz and later at the city's Feliks Nowowiejski Academy of Music, where he was still a student when he won the Chopin Competition. Now 28, Blechacz, in addition to his international concert career, is pursuing doctoral studies in the philosophy of music at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń.
Blechacz's first concert as the 2014 Gilmore artist will be webcast live from WQXR's Greene Space, Wednesday, Jan. 8, at 5:30 p.m. ET.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
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SIEGEL: The music is Chopin. It's his first piano concerto. The pianist is Rafal Blechacz, a 28-year-old from Poland who is in our New York studio today because of a prestigious award that he's won. It's the Gilmore Artist Award. It's given every four years to an exceptional pianist, $300,000 to be dispersed over four years.
Rafal Blechacz, welcome and congratulations on winning this.
RAFAL BLECHACZ: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: And tell me, when did you learn that you had won the Gilmore Award?
BLECHACZ: I was in Berlin. It was in July last year. I got an email from Dan Gustin, the director of Gilmore Festival. He wrote me that he would like to have a meeting with me so I supposed that the meeting was going to be about my next concerts at Gilmore Festival in 2014. But when I heard the news, I was extremely happy because I didn't expect this award.
SIEGEL: Tell me about you and playing the piano. You're 28 now. You won the Chopin competition in Warsaw when you were just 20. How young were you when you started playing and when you figured out you were going to be a pianist?
BLECHACZ: I was five years old when I started to play the piano, but I must tell you that my first fascination was the organ music and I really wanted to be the organist, not the pianist, when I was a child. So my memories from my childhood are connected with going to the church and listening to the organ music. I was absolutely fascinated by the huge sound of the organ.
But when I started to play more and more piano, I realized that this is the right instrument for me so I wanted to play more and more Bach compositions and Mozart and Chopin, of course.
SIEGEL: I should explain to people that when you won the Chopin competition in 2005 in Warsaw, you did the equivalent of not just winning a pentathlon, but winning every single event in the pentathlon. One event is the polonaise and you have a CD out in which you play the Chopin polonaises and here's a bit of you playing one, one which I think is fitting for a triumphant day when you've won a big prize.
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SIEGEL: These pieces obviously mean a great deal to you.
BLECHACZ: Yeah, it's a very famous piece, it's the polonaise from my last album for Deutsche Grammophon. I decided to record seven polonaises because I really wanted to show a specific, very typical Polish written, and the same we have in the mazurkas. You know...
SIEGEL: A rhythm, a Polish rhythm.
BLECHACZ: Yes, a Polish rhythm, the folk music was a big inspiration for Chopin so I am very happy that I can show the specific type and the specific atmosphere of the Polish dance.
SIEGEL: Have you listened to many recordings, whether they're Rubinstein recordings or other people's recordings of these pieces and are there some which stand out to you as an ideal or do you want to approach them more freshly?
BLECHACZ: I have many recordings of Rubinstein and it's a big inspiration for me. There are so many energies, so many political fragments. And the second pianist, one of my favorites, is Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the Italian pianist and I love his (unintelligible), his (unintelligible) sonatas, his articulation. I think that he combines the intellectual aspects and emotional aspects in the interpretation very naturally.
So it's absolutely amazing for me. But I think that the most important thing in the interpretation is to find your own way on the particular piece and to find individual view on the particular musical work.
SIEGEL: How does that happen? That is, I assume that there are Chopin pieces that you've been playing since the time that you were 12 or 13 and you've been at it now for 15 years. Have you always played a piece in your own way or does that happen after you've played it a hundred times or when do you find your own way through a Chopin piece?
BLECHACZ: I think it's a very natural process. Of course, the interpretation is changing when I play the same repertoire in different concert halls and different acoustics, on different pianos, on different instruments. I think the interpretation is changing all the time.
SIEGEL: But when you say it depends on the hall that you're playing in as well, because that's how you're hearing it and you're responding to the music that you're playing?
BLECHACZ: Yes. Sometimes I have to change some elements in the interpretation. For example, the (unintelligible), the articulation because sometimes when I play in the Italian theaters where the acoustic is very dry, I have to change some (unintelligible) in the interpretation. When I play in the different concert halls with different acoustics, I have to think about different elements.
So sometimes it's very important to talk with the tuner before the concert about the specific intonation to the specific repertoire, to the specific acoustic of the concert hall. It's very important.
SIEGEL: Does winning the award, the Gilmore Award, does it alter your plans for the next few years?
BLECHACZ: Well, this is a great award so now I am thinking about my next projects. Maybe this award help me with buying a new piano. I have a wonderful piano in my house, but this is the Steinway Model B. I would love to have Model D, the concert piano. So maybe this award can help. After my winnings in 2005, I bought an extremely good piano, Model B, in Hamburg because I realized that this is the best.
I really want this, too, to play more Debussy and the colors and different shades of the sounds. It's very important in this music so I needed a very good instrument and now I can study the sound, which is very important in impressionism but also in Chopin's music. I think very interesting is the middle part of the first polonaise.
There is an extremely beautiful melody, the harmonies are very, very special.
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BLECHACZ: And very important for me was to create many different colors of the sound in this section so I was very happy that I could study this repertoire on my new piano. It was very important before the recording. And also, extremely beautiful and amazing piece for me is the last polonaise, "Polonaise Fantasy Op. 61." There are so many improvised fragments and poetical fragments and I really wanted to create totally different colors.
SIEGEL: Colors, different colors.
BLECHACZ: Colors of the sound, yes.
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SIEGEL: Rafal Blechacz, thank you very much for talking with us.
BLECHACZ: Thank you. Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: Rafal Blechacz, who spoke to us from New York, is the winner of the 2014 Gilmore Artist Award. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.