In late October 2005, every eye in the classical music world was turned toward Warsaw, Poland as the 15th International Chopin Competition — an event that has launched the careers of many young pianists — declared its winner. For the first time in 30 years, a Polish pianist received first prize. The winner, then 20-year-old Rafał Blechacz, impressed the judges to such an extent that no second prize was awarded. The up-and-coming virtuoso will take Ann Arbor by storm this weekend with a solo recital on Friday and a chamber concert on Sunday.

Rafał Blechacz

Tonight at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m.
Hill Auditorium and Rackham Auditorium
From $10

Born in the Polish town of Nakło nad Notecią, Blechacz began studying the piano at five years old. As a child, Blechacz gained a deep love of music from listening to organ music at church.

“I was very fascinated by organ music, and I wanted to be an organist — not a pianist,” Blechacz said in a recent phone interview with The Michigan Daily. “My memories from my childhood are connected with going to church and listening to the organ. But, of course, when I started piano lessons, I realized that this is the right instrument for me and I wanted to be a pianist.”

Blechacz is part of a longstanding tradition of Polish pianists that includes greats like Krystian Zimerman, Arthur Rubenstein and Frédéric Chopin, whose works made Blechacz’s name world-famous.

“Chopin is very close to me — one of my favorite composers,” Blechacz said. “Thanks to Chopin I can play all over the world, especially since my winning the Chopin Competition five years ago. And, of course, his music is very close to me — to my personality, I think. It’s full of emotions, a lot of interesting technical aspects and a lot of colors and shades of sound.”

Blechacz went on to say that being Chopin’s compatriot helped him interpret the composer’s Polish-influenced works, especially the mazurkas and polonaises. Yet Blechacz also pointed out that non-Poles have championed Chopin’s compositions.

“I must say that there are a lot of pianists who are not Polish, but they play Chopin’s music very well,” he said. “Martha Argerich is from Argentina and Maurizio Pollini is an Italian pianist. So they are not Polish, but their interpretation is absolutely great.”

For his UMS recital debut at Hill Auditorium on Friday, Blechacz has included four of Chopin’s works on the program. In addition, the pianist will join acclaimed string sextet Concertante this Sunday at Rackham Auditorium for a chamber performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The pianist said Sunday’s concert will mark his first collaboration with Concertante and also his first performance of the chamber version of Chopin’s concerto.

Blechacz has also helped to revitalize interest in lesser-known Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. Born in 1882, Szymanowski found inspiration in Polish folk music and the works of Chopin. Before his death in 1937, Szymanowski produced a large body of work that included four symphonies and two violin concertos.

“Unfortunately, his pieces are not so popular (worldwide) and not so popular in Europe — not even in Poland,” Blechacz said. “So I’m happy that I can play his music during recitals around the world.”

Last month, Blechacz recorded two of Szymanowski’s works, including the composer’s Piano Sonata No. 1 in C minor, which he plans to play at Friday’s recital.

“It’s a very big piece in four movements,” Blechacz said. “There’s a lot of expression in this piece — a lot of beautiful melodies, a lot of interesting harmony and wonderful modulations. So I think that the audience will love this piece.”

Besides recording and performing, Blechacz finds time to fit in university classes in his home country.

“I started to study philosophy of music at Copernicus University,” he said. “I’m very interested in the aesthetics and philosophy of music … Of course this isn’t a regular study with regular lessons, because it’s not possible when I travel a lot. But between my concerts, I can do it.”

At this early stage in Blechacz’s blossoming career, Ann Arbor audiences will have a unique opportunity to witness an emerging classical music superstar. As a young Pole, Blechacz has helped to spread the music of his homeland to a wider audience. Who says that the only things that come from Poland are pierogies and polka?

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