When Akron Symphony music director Christopher Wilkins conducted German pianist Alexander Schimpf in the final round of the Cleveland International Piano Competition in 2011, he told the young competition winner he wanted to bring him to Akron to play with the Akron Symphony.
“He [Wilkins] told me then, ‘You will come to Akron one day and we will play something there one day.’ This day is coming up now,” said Schimpf by Skype interview last week from his residence in Wuerzburg, Germany.
Schimpf, 31, will be featured Saturday playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with the Akron Symphony at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall.
It will be part of the orchestra’s Romeo and Juliet, a program of passionate music, virtuosity and vibrant orchestrations that will include excerpts from Suites 1 and 2 of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Also on the bill, assistant conductor Levi Hammer will guest conduct Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, inspired by the poem about erotic longing by Stephane Mallarme. Wilkins chose the Romantic masterpiece as a beautiful way to set up the Chopin work.
“Chords melt into one another without complications, without a concern about what the consequences are,” he said of the Debussy piece.
Wilkins, who was a conducting assistant and assistant conductor for the Cleveland Orchestra for three years in the 1980s, conducted the final round of the 2011 Cleveland International Piano Competition, in which Schimpf was one of four remaining competitors from an original field of 26. The finalists performed with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall for the final round of competition.
This was the first time Wilkins had conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in 25 years. The Akron maestro had earlier attended the semifinal round of the competition and chosen Schimpf as his favorite.
“This artist is very special — very rare,” Wilkins said. “The technical gifts were all there but the musicianship was just extraordinary. He showed every bit of being ready to play with the Cleveland Orchestra.”
Schimpf, the first German pianist to ever win first prize in the Cleveland International Piano Competition, also won the Audience Favorite prize. For the finals, he played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.
Wilkins recalled that his playing was “so sensitive, both free and disciplined, which is an irresistible combination. It’s immaculate and everything’s thought through beautifully, but it has a feeling of being improvised.”
Wilkins asked Schimpf to play the Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 in Akron because it’s popular among mainstream audiences, it’s one of Wilkins’ favorites, and the orchestra hasn’t played it in a while.
“It’s romantic and sentimental and filled with flights of the early Romantic age. It’s so beguiling and so beautiful and has melodies that are just melting to hear,” Wilkins said.
Schimpf’s competition win in Cleveland opened doors to a number of U.S. performance tours, his Carnegie Hall debut in 2011 and other performance opportunities in Russia, Poland and Italy. Schimpf’s Akron performance Saturday will be the first on a four-week, eight-performance U.S. tour.
He also will do three performances in Southern Oregon with the Rogue Valley Symphony; a recital at Bluffton University in Ohio; another recital in Edmond, Okla.; and two performances with the Elgin Symphony Orchestra in Illinois.
Schimpf said he enjoys touring and looks forward to seeing even more of the world.
“It’s very intense. It’s great. The more I do the more I like it. It’s exciting,” he said.
Cleveland serves as his home base in the United States now. His Cleveland host family from the 2011 competition, Jeff and Sue Weiler, will attend Schimpf’s Akron concert. Jeff Weiler is a board member with Cleveland International Piano Competition.
The Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor is the first piece Schimpf ever played as a soloist with an orchestra — at age 18 with the youth symphony in his hometown of Goettingen.
Here’s another first: “It’s actually the first time I’ll play a Chopin concerto in the United States with an orchestra,” Schimpf said.
“I always like to come back to it because of some special memories with it,” he said.
“It’s like opera, especially, the right hand … it’s like a singing voice all the time,” Schimpf said of the melody and flexible tempo.
“This slow movement of the E minor concerto is an especially beautiful one. At the same time, it’s very peaceful like some slow, beautiful opera aria, … and it’s also dramatic,” Schimpf said.
Chopin, who preferred to write just for the piano, largely shied away from performing with orchestras. He reportedly was inspired by his love for a young soprano to write both his first and second piano concertos, which he composed at age 20 in Warsaw.
Chopin was known as the master of the keyboard and one of the greatest poets of the piano.
“This music, it gives me more than poetry can. It’s just stronger than words usually are,” Schimpf said. “You can definitely feel this emotional intensity in the music.”
On Saturday, the orchestra also will perform excerpts from Suites 1 and 2 of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. The full-length, three-act ballet was dropped in the 1930s by both the Kirov Theater and the Bolshoi Ballet before going on to become one of the most popular of all ballets.
In the meantime, Prokofiev extracted parts of the score for concert performances.
“Today it’s considered right at the top of the highest achievements of 20th century ballet,” Wilkins said.
Shakespeare’s tragic story is told through shifts in tone representing the characters from Romeo and Juliet, complete from overwhelming love scenes to moments of devastating grief. Prokofiev placed the movements from Suites 1 and 2 out of order, but Wilkins has arranged seven of them in the order of Shakespeare’s story, beginning with the Montagues and Capulets and ending at Juliet’s grave.
“It’s ravishing. It’s just gorgeous,” Wilkins said of the Prokofiev work.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.