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The Heartbeats of New Generation

Latvian Pianist Returns to Shanghai

“It is highly recommended [as a performer] to ask yourself this question every day – why should people listen to me instead of any other musician?”

 This year seems to be a “China Year” for Latvian pianist Vestard Shimkus. After five recitals in different major cities all over China throughout September, Shimkus returns to play at the World Expo as the representative of his country on October 21.

Shimkus got the opportunity to open his first China tour by winning the 55th Maria Canals International Piano Competition in Barcelona in 2009. Last month, he played works including Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole and Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonata No. 2 op.26 in b flat minor – works all famous for their unique timbre and complex and intricate fingerwork.

Each solo piece last more than 30 minutes, challenging the pianist, as well as audiences’ patience, especially if the audiences are not well versed in classical music. Despite this, Shimkus, with his rich emotions and intense passion, managed to leave listeners amazed and nailed to their seats, so impressed were they by his tango repertoire Heartbeats of Astor Piazzolla. In Tsingtao, one audience told him “I think you are better than Yundi Li.”

It is inevitable for Chinese audiences to compare Shimkus with the top two Chinese pianists: Yundi Li and Lang Lang, especially since he is almost as same age as them.

When a child, Shimkus’ father, a violinist, noticed his son’s talent in music; starting with the fact that he could accurately sing the tune of any cartoon songs he watched on TV.

Shimkus family had an old concert piano made in mid-1800s. It is one of five pianos the young Shimkus practiced on from morning to night since he was five. At age of nine, he won an international young pianists’ competition in Vilnius, Lithuania.

“At that concert I experienced for the first time how it is to grab the attention of the audience by making the miracle that is called music,” says Shimkus with excitement in his eyes. “Then I decided to do everything I could to become a professional concert pianist.”

Meanwhile, Shimkus started composing his own piece at the age of seven. Living in the house near a green forest, Shimkus spent most of his free time alone there and says he gets a lot of his inspiration from the natural sounds around him.

In 2002, Shimkus caught attention of the HBF Music Agency after they saw him perform at a school concert in which each student was only given ten minutes to perform. HBF then decided to hold a solo concert for him.

HBF was so confident about this young musician that they dared to promise their audiences “it will be something they never seen before in this concert” in the event posters.

It could have destroyed HBF’s reputation if the concert did not go well, but fortunately Shimkus played what was described as a “huge recital of the most astonishing and difficulty pieces”.

Afterward the concert Shimkus was informed that it was the first time in Latvia that the domestic pianist’s concert sold out. He had never guessed that this concert would grant him overnight fame.

At twenty-six, Shimkus has piercing eyes, comely face, dark skin and impressively long fingers, which more or less reveals his career. He is remarkably tall. A handsome musician unavoidably attracts more fans. Photograph of him regularly appear in Latvian magazines; even Playboy uncharacteristically showed an interest in classical music by running a large feature story on him in the first edition of the Latvian version of the magazine. Latvian TV once screened a special program where he made himself up to appear fifty and talked in past tense about his love of today’s music and played some pieces from this era.

When he was in the Guangzhou Opera House performing recently it took his tour manager a little while to stop female staff members screaming and to drag them all out of the rehearsal room.

Shimkus has won several international piano competitions. Nevertheless, he doesn’t like the idea of competition. “I have played with some of the world’s best orchestras, like the BBC Philharmonic and Orchestre National de France, and participated in some of the most important festivals, like Lockenhaus Gidon Kremer festival or Bergen festival in Norway, but those opportunities were never given to me by winning any competition,” Shimkus told the Global Times.

Adding: “Music is a very creative and subjective form of art and it is impossible to make an objective determination which interpretation is superior to another and why. I have decided not to participate in competitions anymore.”

Shimkus thinks pianist should serve the composer. “When I study a piece of music, the most significant aspect of the process for me is to identify myself with the composer so that the composer and me would become as ‘one’,” he said.

“I try to play the music from the composer’s point of view, but translated into my own personal feelings. The ideal result is that listeners in a concert hall would feel as if I am spontaneously creating, for instance, a Chopin’s piece on the spot.”

He said: “It is highly recommended [as a performer] to ask yourself this question every day – why should people listen to me instead of any other musician?”

Shimkus’ upcoming concert is part of the celebration of Latvian Pavilion Day. The one-hour concert will begin with a complex piece, Spring Music by Peteris Vasks, which transports audience members to an early morning in a Latvian forest when the birds are returning from the South after the long and cold winter. Shimkus stresses that it is “a very Latvian piece and, at the climactic ending of the piece, the piano must be played not only with fingers but also with palms and arms.”

This piece is followed by two sonatas in very diverse styles from Spanish baroque composer Antonio Soler, and Chopin’s classic Scherzo No.2. The jazz-influenced classical work Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin follows; a piece that was originally composed for solo piano and jazz bands but has now been performed several times by large orchestras. The solo piano version requires the pianist not only to play his part, but, simultaneously, the orchestral part as well.

The concert ends with one of Shimkus’ own pieces, Heartbeats of Astor Piazzolla, which he composed for the Latvian Opera House’s New Year concert in 2005. This piece shows the compositional skills of Shimkus, who has created a striking piece with unusual twists – he taps the wooden paneling with his fingers in a tango rhythm to get the piece started, then when the beats are getting stronger and stronger he smoothly transforms the rhythm to the piano keys. This work offers various colors of emotions and some resonant parts that take the audiences breath away. Since it was first performed live it has been one of Shimkus’ most admired and requested pieces.

This year Shimkus has performed approximately 60 concerts across Europe, the United States and now into Asia. His aims is to “show the classical music in such a sincere and captivating way that even people who have never heard any of it before would belove it and discover the gripping magic of this music.”

So far he has succeeded in influencing people of his generation in Latvia, but now wants to build a connection with audiences of different ages and backgrounds: “like an open conversation between me and every particular listener, where my language is music and his/her language is attention and reaction,” he explains passionately.

Published in Global Times

I was tour manager for his first China Tour in Nanjing, Guangzhou.

Cecily and Shimkus

Latvian Pavilion

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