Imagine being given $300,000 for winning a contest you didn’t know you had entered.
That’s the good fortune that befalls the recipient of the Michigan-based Gilmore Artist Award, presented every four years to a gifted classical pianist unaware that he or she has been in the running.
This year’s surprise winner, announced in January, was Argentine-born Ingrid Fliter, the fifth honoree and the first woman tapped. A relative unknown in the U.S., she had given her first American performance only in 2003. Today, she is on the eve of her Hollywood Bowl debut.
The 33-year-old Fliter, a silver medalist at the 2000 International Frederic Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, lives in Milan, Italy, and has appeared primarily in Europe, Japan and her native country. But with the buzz created by the Gilmore, a low profile anywhere is no longer an option for her.
“I feel that I’m embraced,” she said recently by phone from a New York hotel, still basking in her unexpected acclaim. “It makes my way a bit easier. Now the doors of the United States have been opened to me, something I’ve been dreaming of very much.”
Indeed, Fliter (pronounced FLEE-ter) was chosen by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in March to replace ailing star Martha Argerich at Walt Disney Concert Hall in a performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, the piece she will reprise with the Philharmonic at the Bowl on Thursday. And her globe-trotting 2007 schedule includes concerts in San Francisco and Chicago and at Carnegie Hall.
Reviewers, meanwhile, have been rhapsodic.
“Fliter appears to be a pianistic force of nature,” Times music critic Mark Swed wrote of her Disney Hall performance. “Stay tuned,” he concluded. “A wonderful pianist has arrived.” In May, London’s Daily Telegraph called her “one of the most instinctive and eloquent Chopin interpreters playing today.” And this month, after she played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 at the Caramoor festival in New York, a New York Times reviewer wrote that “even without the Gilmore cachet, it would have been clear that Ms. Fliter possessed a remarkable talent.”
Fliter was among nearly 500 candidates nominated by music professionals for secret consideration by the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, which bestows the Gilmore prize on a performer “of truly exceptional quality, regardless of age or nationality.” Leif Ove Andsnes and Piotr Anderszewski are among the previous winners.
During the anonymous three-year process that culminated in her award, the nominees were winnowed down to 25 or so, and a panel of six judges, headed by Gilmore executive director Daniel R. Gustin, listened to recordings by the pianists “obtained through various channels,” in Gustin’s words, and attended numerous concerts and recitals.
The panel -- whose other members were NancyBell Coe, director of Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West; Ara Guzelimian, senior director and artistic advisor of Carnegie Hall; Charles Hamlen, director of Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS; concert pianist Gilbert Kalish; and Curtis Price, principal of Britain’s Royal Academy of Music -- “traipsed all over the world,” Gustin said, to hear Fliter play a varied repertoire.
“Among all the people that we heard, she stood out as being an artist of enormous promise,” he said, “somebody who seemed to have enormous potential for making a major career as a concert pianist and to be able to make an impact on music. She swept everybody away.”
The child of musical parents -- her father played the piano by ear and her mother was an amateur singer -- Fliter was encouraged early to make up her own tunes on the piano. The result, she said, was that she formed a comfortable connection with the instrument long before she learned to read music. She made her professional debut with an orchestra at age 16 at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
Fliter, “a bit embarrassed” at frequent comparisons to her countrywoman and early mentor Argerich -- “It’s too much honor for me” -- said she strives for a natural, honest approach to playing.
“If you don’t feel what you are trying to say, it will for sure sound artificial,” she observed in her lilting English. “Leonard Bernstein said that, in a way, he felt he was the composer. I understand that. It sounds pretentious, but it isn’t.
“It’s being part of the process, of telling the story. You’re not just an instrument through whom the music goes. In a way, you are participating in the creation of that music. You follow your own instincts, but you discover the beauty of music after living with it, growing with it, day by day.”
Despite all the accolades heaped on Fliter for her lyricism and subtlety -- a 2004 Washington Post review said that the music of Beethoven and Chopin sounded “as though it were being born under her fingers” -- she will always be a student of music, she said. “The moment you don’t consider that you have many things left to learn, in that precise moment you are going backward.”
Fliter’s repertoire isn’t limited to the composers who have sparked critics’ greatest praise, but her affinity for them is deeply personal.
“Beethoven I felt from the very beginning,” she said. “It’s a kind of language that I understand. Chopin has a very classical, clean soul. As soon as you go toward the limit, toward excess, you realize that it’s too much and the music is not becoming better -- you are putting too much makeup on it, because it’s already beautiful.”
Mozart is a question of sound and color, she explained, “of flying and following the line that flows like a butterfly, not charging, not giving too much.” A pianist must take care not to accent the “sadness” in a piece such as the Concerto No. 23, “because then it can become almost satiric, not sad anymore, not transcendental.”
“Music gives one’s existence a reason to be,” she said. “I think it lets us remember that maybe there is something bigger that is embracing us. If you’re touched and moved by it, music has a reason to exist.”
So far, Fliter has recorded just two CDs: “Chopin,” a program of waltzes, nocturnes, scherzos and the Ballade No. 4, and “Chopin and Beethoven,” more waltzes by the Polish composer paired with Beethoven’s sonatas Nos. 7 and 18.
Both discs were recorded live at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, in 2003 and 2005, respectively, but released only in January by VAI Audio.
Her next CD is likely to be of a Schubert sonata and four impromptus, Fliter said, but her fervent hope is to one day record all five Beethoven concertos.
“Ah, yes, that’s my dream. I would like that very much.”
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Price: $1 to $93
Contact: (213) 480-3232, (323) 850-2000 or www.hollywoodbowl.com