A shy young prodigy enters the limelight.
Frederic Chopin used to tell his students, “Having overcome all the difficulties, played thousands of notes, you arrive at a charming simplicity that is the culmination of art.” Then he would add, “Whoever wants to achieve this immediately, will never reach it at all. … You have to study a great, great deal to achieve this goal.”
For the hundreds of pianists who arrived in Warsaw in October 2005 to take part in the 15th Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition, the composer’s words resonate as much today as they did in the 1820s when the teenage prodigy was teaching piano in his native Poland. Today’s young hopefuls, representing 19 countries, were about to face one of the most grueling piano competitions in the world -- a three-week-long showdown at the keyboards, trying to master the complexity and magic of Chopin’s work.
In an ending worthy of Hollywood, a shy 20-year-old from a small town in northern Poland was ushered into the musical spotlight. Rafal Blechacz’s winning performance astounded the judges and sent ripples of joy across Poland: Finally, the 30-year drought was over, and the country’s most prestigious cultural event could crown its next Polish star.
Blechacz, it turns out, is a modest man of few words, who would slip away to practice at home in the hinterlands after each scintillating performance. He took up the piano when he was 5 years old and made his first concert appearance at age 11. Like other talented Polish performers, he studied at the Arthur Rubenstein State Music School in the northern industrial city of Bydgoszcz, then moved on to the city’s main music academy. In 2005, he became the fourth Pole to carry away the coveted Chopin prize. Four wins in an event staged every five years for the past 75 (it stopped only for World War II) might be considered respectable odds for any other country. But for Poland, the host country, with its rich classical heritage and Chopin a national hero, a mere four wins is not acceptable. (Polanaises run in Polish blood -- Blechacz’s no exception.)
“First place in the Chopin competition offers unusual opportunities,” the young musician told journalists after the dust had settled. Celebrated Irish pianist John O’Conor, in judging Blechacz’s final performance, was slightly more effusive: “He is one of the greatest artists I have had a chance to hear in my entire life,” he swooned.
The Chopin judges are renowned for their toughness. In 1990 and 1995, the jury decided that not one of the finalists was good enough to win the Gold Medal or carry away the accompanying prize money.
Since Blechacz’s success, many doors have opened for him. He has been courted by top record labels, including the venerable Deutsche Grammaphon, famous for its high-quality classical recordings, and he released a double CD in January. His performance card is fully booked through 2006 and into 2007.
Blechacz has also toured Japan with the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Warsaw, playing to enthusiastic audiences. Japan and South Korea are big consumers of classical music, with a particular love for Chopin. The two countries have produced some of the most technically accomplished pianists on the concert circuit. (Nine of the 12 finalists in the 2005 Chopin contest came from Asian countries.)
But Blechacz says that much of his inspiration comes from closer to home, listening to fellow Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman. Zimerman won the Chopin competition in 1975, 10 years before Blechacz was born, and went on to a brilliant international career.
“I’ve read in an interview that he’s got a huge repertoire, but has only recorded 1 percent of it. That is incredible,” Blechacz said of his idol. “I dream of being able to meet him and getting to know his musical fascinations.”
When the young star was asked by classical music critic Jan Popis how the competition would change his life, Blechacz replied, “Let’s not get carried away. I cannot let myself be burdened by this. … I like playing for the people. I would like to continue to perform and choose concerts that offer freshness and joy; and prepare for each one as well as possible … and simply enjoy what I do.”
Rafal Blechacz’s Competition Success
2005: Took all awards at the 15th Frederic Chopin International Piano Competition, including the Gold Medal, and three special awards for the best performance of a polonaise, a mazurka and a concerto. (Competition judges decided no competitors were worthy of the second prize. Two brothers from South Korea -- Dong Min Lim and Dong Hyek Lim -- were awarded the third prize.)
2004: Received top award at the International Piano Competition in Morocco.
2003: Tied for first place with Russia’s Alexander Kobrin at the International Piano Competition in Hamamatsu, Japan.
2002: Won the second award at the Arthur Rubinstein in Memoriam International Competition for Young Pianists in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
SOURCES: Warsaw Voice; infochopin; Classical.net; BBC; Radio Prague.