Rafal Blechacz wins 2014 Gilmore Artist Award

by Fred Child
January 8, 2014
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Rafal Blechacz (Courtesy the Gilmore)

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No one applies. There is no lobbying or campaigning. There's not even competition — well, not that anyone is aware of, anyway. But once every four years, jury members from the Gilmore Keyboard Festival ever-so-quietly travel to piano concerts around the world. They take notes, they confer and debate amongst themselves. And in the end, they choose one young up-and-coming pianist who will get $300,000, the biggest cash prize (by some margin) in the world of classical piano.

The 2014 Gilmore Artist Award goes to 28 year-old Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz (pronounced, approximately, RAH-faw BLEH-haatch).

Mr. Blechacz first came to the attention of piano-philes at the 2005 Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. This is a famously picky event — it only happens once every five years, and twice they have chosen not to give first prize to anyone. In 2005, Blechacz swept all awards, and the jury thought his musicianship was so distinguished they awarded no SECOND prize: there was Blechacz alone on the podium, and the rest of the field (accomplished young pianists all) trailing far behind.

I interviewed Blechacz in 2010. He was deeply thoughtful, but with a playfully keen mind — he tossed musical and philosophical ideas like juggling balls. (He is also, by the way, working on a doctorate in philosophy, focusing on the aesthetics and philosophy of music.) And his playing was silky, buttery. Absolutely assured, but with a core of emotional softness. One of his favorite stories is playing a Chopin Mazurka as an encore for an audience in Hamburg, Germany; a piece that trails away to a whisper, and then settles into silence. When the audience remained quiet, didn't applaud at all, Blechacz wasn't offended, he was delighted. "I knew, I knew they were right there with me."

Blechacz will make his first public appearance as the Gilmore Artist Award winner tonight — Wednesday, January 8 — at WQXR's Greene Space, in New York City. I'll co-host with WQXR's Jeff Spurgeon. We'll jointly interview Blechacz; and he'll play music by Chopin, Mozart, and Debussy. We'll also meet Dan Gustin, Director of the Gilmore Festival, and talk with some of the folks who've had a hand in choosing Gilmore Artist Award winners.

You can listen and watch it live, in the player right below this text, on Wednesday afternoon at 4:30 CST. (Update: The viewer now displays the archived show.) We'll also have extensive music and interview highlights on APM's Performance Today, Tuesday, January 14 at 1:00 p.m. CST. I'll also be calling in from New York to talk about the ceremony; you can hear my comments on Performance Today tomorrow, January 9, at 1:00 p.m. CST.