When internationally renowned pianist Enrique Graf came to teach at the College of Charleston 23 years ago, piano music in the Holy City was barely registering a heartbeat. The few pianists that did come through town were usually brought in by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, and that happened only a couple of times per year. There weren't even student recitals to fill in the long stretches of blankness, because CofC had no dedicated piano program.
That all began to change when Graf arrived on the scene. Charged with developing CofC's piano program, Graf knew that in order to attract students, he'd have to do more than just create a strong curriculum; the lack of great piano performances would have to be addressed as well. "I thought that to build a piano program, to convince students to come here instead of going to other cities where they'd have a chance to hear other pianists, we'd have to have people come here."
The answer to that problem was the International Piano Series, which is now going into its 23rd season of delighting both Charleston's piano students and piano aficionados. Surprisingly, says the Uruguayan-born Graf, the program was successful almost from the beginning. "The first two or three years, the series lost a little bit of money, but ever since then, we've made a little bit, which we put back into the program to support students, fix the pianos, things like that."
Like Graf himself, the pianists that perform in the International Piano Series are major piano competition winners, sought-after soloists, and often graduates of the finest music programs in the world. In addition to performing concerts, which are open to the public, each pianist offers a master class through CofC's piano program. That's a huge attraction to prospective students, says Graf. "Our students are certainly inspired by hearing all the different kinds of players that come, and they make good contacts. Some end up going to festivals, or going to study their master's or doctorate with one of the pianists we brought in."
This season, the series will open with a pianist who's not much older than the students he'll be teaching. The 29-year-old Alexander Schimpf, a native of Germany, is fresh off of winning the 2011 Cleveland International Piano Competition, one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the United States. Prior to that, in 2009, Schimpf took first place in Vienna's International Beethoven Competition. Since then, he's been a highly sought-after performer — especially of Beethoven. "Beethoven music is one of my favorites," he says. "I'm playing his Fourth Concerto on Saturday [at a concert in Chattanooga, Tenn.]. It's one of the pieces I play most with orchestras. It's something I really like to do, and then again it's something people ask me for." Another composer he frequently includes in his concerts is the Baroque master Bach, whose music is known for its intellectual depth and technical difficulty in addition to its emotional power.
Though Schimpf's playing is frequently characterized as traditionally classical, sometimes intellectual — which explains his affinity for the works of Bach, Beethoven, and other high classical masters — he also has a deep-seated love for the softer work of the impressionists, particularly Debussy and Ravel. "What I especially like is that at that time their approach to the piano was quite new. It's true that Beethoven's approach at the time was quite new also, but what Debussy and Ravel did is increase the song and color and possibilities of the piano," says Schimpf. "And that's a very impressive thing, and a very beautiful thing."
Perhaps it's this well-roundedness — this ability to master both the hard edges and technical aspects of piano playing, while appreciating and communicating the emotional power of making music — that has helped Schimpf win both audience favorite and juried awards, and standing ovations in concert halls around the world. "[The intellectual aspect] can never be the whole thing," he says. "Music is an emotional thing, and projecting emotion, bringing emotion to the people, is the most important thing we have to do."
Schimpf's Charleston concert will feature pieces by classical favorites Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, and Liszt. Graf expects an outstanding audience for the performance, not only because the young musician will be playing a piece by the composer he's currently best known for, but also simply because he'll be playing as part of the International Piano Series. "I think we have the best audience in town," Graf says. "They may not be the biggest, but they're the best. I don't want people coming in just because. I want people that love the music and love the piano."
After all, those are the people who have been keeping the series going for all these years. "The community's just been incredible," Graf continues. "If the people were not interested, it wouldn't matter if I wanted to do this or not. But they keep showing up."
International Piano Series 2012-13 Season
Nov. 20: Jorge Luis Prats, a Cuban pianist and, according to Graf, an International Piano Series audience favorite. "He's playing a bunch of Cuban music, and people love that. They go crazy for that," he says. Prats is currently enjoying a revival of his international career, which for 30 years was severely curtailed by visa restrictions in his native country. He is a frequent performer at major international music festivals, and recently released the first in a series of live CDs.
Jan. 15: Steven Lin is a young pianist and Juilliard graduate who soloed with the New York Philharmonic at age 14. Most recently, Lin won three awards at the Hilton Head International Piano Competition, where he was recognized for excellence in Baroque and contemporary music. "I'm excited for people to hear Steven," Graf says. "I was a judge at the Hilton Head competition, and I particularly like his playing."
Feb. 19: Ciro Foderé is no stranger to Charleston audiences, having received his undergraduate degree from the College of Charleston and performed with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra several times under the late David Stahl. He made his debut at age 14 with the Philharmonic of Montevideo in his native Uruguay, and is a winner of several major international competitions.
April 2: Chu-Fang Huang was a finalist at the prestigious 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition and took first place that same year in the Cleveland International Piano Competition. She's performed with the Piano Series before, says Graf, where she was a great success. Her playing has been praised for its clarity, delicacy, and assertiveness.