Recap: Polish pianist, Gilmore Artist joins Grand Rapids Symphony for marvelous performance of Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1

By Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk -

Frederic Chopin is one of those musicians, same as Paganini, same as Liszt, which we’d dearly love to go back in time and hear perform. Contemporary accounts say the three were virtuosos who were lightyears ahead of their peers.

Today, I’m a little less fussed about hearing never getting a chance to hear Chopin perform. Because I’ve heard Rafał Blechacz play Chopin. If it’s possible to channel the reincarnated soul of an artist for 35 minutes, Blechacz did so.

The Polish-born pianist made his Grand Rapids Symphony debut on Friday, April 27 with a magnificent performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor. One that was amazingly adept and astonishingly beautiful at the same time under the baton of Music Director Marcelo Lehninger.

The performance, part of the 2018 Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 28, in DeVos Performance Hall.

In 2014, Blechacz was awarded seventh Gilmore Artist Award, one of the most lucrative prizes in classical music worth some $300,000. The quadrennial prize also is one of the most unusual major awards in music. Performers do not compete for the prize. Nominations are made in secret. Jurors travel the world to observe pianists in their natural habitat, so to speak. In the end, the Gilmore judges pick one artist worthy of a major, international career.

The Gilmore Foundation’s track record is rather good. The past 20 years have produced such pianists as Leif Ove Andsnes of Norway, Piotr Anderszewski of Poland, Ingrid Fliter of Argentina and Kirill Gerstein of Russia.

Blechacz, however, rocketed to fame in 2005 as the winner of the 15th International Chopin Piano Competition, becoming the first native Pole in 35 years to win the prize. Not only did Blechacz win the competition, he won all four of the subsidiary prizes for best performance of a mazurka, a polonaise, a nocturne and a concert.

Friday’s performance demonstrated it was well deserved.

To play Chopin, you must be a brilliant player. Blechacz dazzles with technical virtuosity and mesmerizes with musicality, becoming one with the instrument. The long, majestic opening movement was full of elegant effervescence. The lovely middle movement was full of nostalgia and wistfulness. The finale was heroic and heavenly.

When Blechacz performs, you forget that a piano is a percussion instrument with 88 little hammers clanging away at strings. You sometimes also forget there’s an orchestra there as well, and that’s not always bad. Chopin was barely out of his teens when he completed his two piano concertos. He had no particular gift for orchestration and no interest in honing it. Mr. Piano was all about the piano.

It’s no easy task for a conductor to make it sound good. Lehninger’s obvious love for the music of Chopin is a big help.

No doubt it would be different to hear Chopin play his own music. I don’t imagine it could be much better than hearing Blechacz.

Lehninger made his Grand Rapids Symphony debut three years ago conducting Dvorak’s mighty Symphony No. 9 “From the New World.” On Friday he led the Grand Rapids Symphony in Dvorak’s sunny Symphony No. 8 in G Major.

Lehninger, who conducted from memory without the score in front of him, clearly was in his element, leading a masterful performance of nuanced shaping and phrasing with cheery melody after cheery melody. Whether it was a little melody in the flute dispatched effortlessly by principal flutist Christopher Kantner or a full-bodied string section filling the hall with warm, woody music, it was an inspiring performance.

Certain aspects of the late 19th century work do strike the 21st century ear as sappy and schmaltzy. Yet Lehninger applied tasteful when needed. The end result was a performance of joy and celebration though on a grand scale.

The program opened pleasantly with Canto by composer Adam Schoenberg. Not Arnold Schoenberg, the 12-tone German, whose music tends to be more interesting to read on the page than to hear in the hall. Adam Schoenberg’s music is lyrical and inviting, and the American may be the most performed living composer today.

Canto is something of a lullaby that the composer wrote following the birth of his son, though it’s much more. It’s an atmospheric work with a dreamy soundscape, rather like an active mind gathering its thoughts and calming itself in preparation for sleep.

Its sweet, musical meanderings are tranquil but actively so.

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 2:00 PM
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