Czech pianist Lukas Vondracek is well aware of audience expectations for a young, internationally known musician who made his first public appearance at age 4, debuted with the Czech Philharmonic at 14, and at 15 won an award that named him “the most exceptional young artist in Europe.”
“When they see a young person, they expect some showy piece, like Rachmaninoff,” says Vondracek, who will be the guest artist with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra next weekend. “They don’t expect Brahms.”
But Vondracek, who will turn 29 right before arriving in Wichita, is confident his rendition of Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 – considered by many to be a performance milestone for pianists – will push all the right buttons.
“This concerto has so many emotions. It’s joyful, nostalgic, tender, grand, aggressive. This Brahms is something I feel deeply connected to. In the third movement, I struggle not to have tears in my eyes,” Vondracek says. “I want to take the audience through all those emotions and (have them) come out of it inspired.”
The Brahms will be the second half of the program. Opening this classics concert – the second of the season – is Schubert’s Symphony in B Minor, nicknamed “Unfinished Symphony.” Both selections are part of what the orchestra calls its “bucket list.”
“These compositions are the epitome of romantic symphony music,” says Daniel Hege, music director and conductor. “It’s music that wears its heart on its sleeve and is loved by classical music aficionados and novices alike. It is a relatively short program, but there are vast amounts of virtuosity and depth packed into the concert.”
Of guest artist Vondracek, Hege says: “He’s a tremendous virtuoso. But not just a virtuoso, a thoughtful virtuoso.”
“The Brahms requires some of the most technical chops, as we say in the biz, to simply be able to play all the notes. It’s almost unplayable at the tempo required, jumping octave to octave. It takes a virtuoso to pull it off,” Hege says. “This is a very big, important piece with a deep, rich sound. I am very excited to have him here to do it. I’ve watched him a lot and he has a real voice.”
Vondracek was born in Opava in the Czech Republic, a town of about 60,000 that was the historic capital of Silesia. He is the son of two concert pianists, who also taught at the local university, and they discovered his interest in music at age 2.
“I was too young to remember when I started, but from an early age I remember always enjoying the piano. I didn’t really study the score, I just had fun picking out the notes. It was like a game,” Vondracek says.
But then playing became a challenge that, he admits, cut into his time for sports and other activities that young boys are wont to pursue.
“As a teen, there were a few episodes when I would leave playing. But they never lasted very long. The piano is the most complete instrument. It is a colorful instrument that can replace an entire orchestra. I never was interested in any other instrument,” he says.
At 14, he made his debut with the Czech Philharmonic and attracted the attention of its conductor, Maestro Vladimir Ashkenazy.
“He was quite a legend and he took me under his wing. He was the one who guided me and told me how to make a career,” Vondracek says. “When a person of that caliber is behind you, you do not disappoint.”
The best advice Ashkenazy gave him, he says, is: “You are not the show. It is the music. You interpret what the composer had in mind, the philosophy behind the music. The music speaks for itself.”
Vondracek studied at the University of Ostrava in the Czech Republic and at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music, where he received his degree in 2012. He won a jury discretionary award at the Van Cliburn International Piano competition in 2009, and since then has won first prize at Hilton Head International, Unisa International and San Marino International piano competitions.
Now based in Boston, he is on the concert circuit for about six months of the year, appearing with orchestras from Paris to Madrid to Brussels, Amsterdam, Zurich, Washington, D.C., and at Carnegie Hall in New York. He was the youngest pianist to be featured in London’s international competition in Queen Elizabeth Hall.
When he’s not at the keyboard, Vondracek finds time to play squash twice a week. “I use it to keep in shape without worrying about hurting my hands.” He also likes movies, particularly comedies that require no cerebral effort on his part.
But he doesn’t have much patience for today’s pop music. “I can listen for maybe 10 minutes, then I realize it’s not that interesting,” he says. “I feel a little guilty for wasting time.”
So, what does Vondracek like to listen to as an audience member himself?
“Actually, silence,” Vondracek says with a laugh. “Since I do this (music) basically all my life, when I am not playing, I like to go to a museum or nature (walk). I wouldn’t say I never listen to classical music, but I prefer an opera or something different than what I play.”
If You Go
Wichita Symphony Orchestra Classics
What: Schubert’s Symphony in B Major (“Unfinished”) and Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 featuring Czech pianist Lukas Vondracek under baton of Daniel Hege
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 24 and 3 p.m. Oct. 25. Bonus free concert talk with Maestro Hege about the program begins in the auditorium one hour before the concert.
Tickets: $57-$19; call 316-267-7658 or www.wichitasymphony.org
Allied event: “Schubert, Brahms & Brews” for under-40 professionals that includes pre-concert social hour at 7 p.m. Saturday, concert at 8 and afterparty at 9:30 with Hege and musicians at Central Standard Brewing Company for $35.