Rafal Blechacz

Polish Pianist Earns Chops on Chopin

Monday, October 13th, 2014

Polish pianist Rafal Blechacz credits his country’s most beloved composer, Frederic Chopin, for his success.

“When I started to play Chopin, I realized that this was the right composer for me,” he says. “His feelings – the emotions we can hear in his compositions – are very close to my heart.”

Blechacz (pronounced BLEH-hawtch) was just 19 when he won the Chopin International Piano Competition, one of the music world’s most prestigious contests, in 2005. In an unprecedented sweep, he also took the awards for best polonaise, mazurka, sonata and concerto, plus the audience-favorite title.

Chopin’s music will make up half of Blechacz’s concert when the Society for the Performing Arts presents his Houston debut Friday. From the elegant “Minute” Waltz to the stormy Polonaise in F-sharp minor, the works will demonstrate the dramatic range that makes Chopin’s music compelling.

Some of the composer’s most eloquent pieces spring from Polish folk dances, such as the vigorous polonaise and the softer mazurka. Growing up around the music, Blechacz says, helped him understand the rhythms and nuances of Chopin’s stylized versions.

“It’s impossible to explain. You have to feel it,” the 29-year-old says.

Blechacz, raised in the northern Poland town of Naklo nad Notecia, population about 22,000, had won other competitions. But nothing prepared him for what followed his Chopin victory. He knew nothing about choosing an agent or making other career decisions.

“It was quite a difficult moment for me,” Blechacz says. “Everything was completely new.”

But another Polish pianist knew how he felt. Krystian Zimerman was also 19 when he won the same competition in 1975. Zimerman invited his young colleague to his home in Switzerland and counseled Blechacz on music and career-building.

“He told me that I should be completely natural in (performing) the music – I have to listen to my intuition and my heart,” Blechacz says.

Blechacz studied the pipe organ as a child, fascinated by the instrument’s huge sound. He envisioned becoming a church musician and played a lot of music by J.S. Bach. But, around age 10, he discovered he could transform a piano’s sound simply through his touch on the keys, an impossibility on the pipe organ. He switched instruments.

But Blechacz’s affection for Bach’s music survived. The baroque master’s “Italian” Concerto will open Friday’s concert; Chopin also loved Bach’s compositions.

Years after winning the Chopin competition, Blechacz continues to add career milestones. This month’s tour includes his first performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Blechacz also has to decide how to spend the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award, which a Michigan foundation confers every four years on an unsuspecting pianist. A chunk of the prize, which was announced in January, will probably go toward a Steinway concert grand piano, Blechacz says.

If so, the piano will rest in the house Blechacz bought near his hometown a few years ago. Though he enjoys visiting big cities, where he can attend concerts and operas, he’s not interested in metropolitan living. He prefers the countryside, where he can practice the piano, expand his repertoire and unwind by riding his bicycle.

“I need a quieter atmosphere,” Blechacz says. “I have to work. I have to study new pieces.”


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