Polish pianist Rafa 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, Rafa 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 Toru.
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.