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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Tonight: 'If I'm going to play like everyone else, what's the point?' asks a remarkable young pianist

By John Terauds on April 3, 2013

Vestard and Ilina Shimkus perform at the Glenn Gould Studio on Wednesday night.
Vestard and Elina Shimkus perform at the Glenn Gould Studio on Wednesday night.

There are fine performers to be found everywhere. But once in a while, someone truly out of the ordinary comes along to raise eyebrows and goosebumps. It happened to me yesterday when I met 20-something Latvian couple Vestard and Elina Shimkus.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

They make their Toronto début tonight at the Glenn Gould Studio in a two-part programme. The first half showcases the truly remarkable skills and musicality of Vestard. The second half is all about the couple as collaborators, as Vestard’s work on the keyboard is joined by his engaging wife’s appealing soprano.

They are honouring the Wagner bicentennial as well as a number of Latvian composers who are not household names in these parts. Elina will also sing arias by Mozart and Rossini, showing her lithe vocals to best advantage.

Although they’re both still under 30, they have impressed enough concert presenters and opera companies in Europe to fill their calendars. I had a chance to hear why in rehearsal yesterday.

While Elina was warming up, Vestard and I chatted about the state of the young pianist’s art. Like any recent conservatory graduate, he’s keenly aware of the competition — not only from fellow graduates, but the veterans and nearly a century of recordings.

“I wake up every morning wondering why anyone would want to listen to me play,” said Vestard in all earnestness. “If I’m going to play like everyone else, what’s the point?”

So, in an act of bravery — some might even say recklessness — Vestard described how he reads and absorbs every detail of a score and then crafts his interpretation from that, rather than relying on a performance tradition.

His point, and many young performers may agree, is that there are umpteen recordings of the core repertoire out there to choose from if one wants to go the traditional-interpretation route. “There are so many pianists out there who all sound the same,” says Vestard.

It may sound like an egotistical comment, but anyone who has spent time at a piano competition is likely to agree with him.

Vestard’s act of absorbing a musical score is so determined that he even accompanies Elina from memory. He scoffed when I suggested that this wasn’t necessary. “Do you see actors standing on stage with a script?” he exclaimed.

I asked him if he has a photographic memory.

“No,” he replied.

“He just works very hard,” smiled Elina.

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I’ve prepared a 12-minute podcast that introduces the couple as well as their musicmaking, which you will find below.

For details of the concert itself, click here.

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There’s a bit of local interest in Vestard’s story. When the German edition of Wondrous Strange, Kevin Bazzana’s definitive biography of Glenn Gould, was published about seven years ago, the publisher asked Shimkus to record all of Gould’s piano music for a companion CD.

“I’ve pretty much played everything Glenn Gould ever wrote,” smiles Shimkus.

I asked him if he thinks the music is any good. He paused and very tactfully described its fine craft and polyphony. “But it’s not very pianistic; it might work better for a string quartet or a choir,” he added.

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Vestard has released two recent commercial CDs with the German label Ars Produktion.

The first, released in 2011 is all about Beethoven — two sonatas (Op. 2 No. 3 as well as the Hammerklavier Op. 106) and a spectacularly virtuosic fantasy on the Ode to Joy musical theme by Shimkus himself.

wagner_idyll_coverThe second, released a few months ago, is an all-Wagner album. It contains Glenn Gould’s transcription of the Siegfried Idyll, Franz Liszt’s take on the Spinnerlied from The Flying Dutchman, Shimkus’s own transcription of Isolde’s Liebestod and Wagner’s nearly-half-hour Fantasia, a very early composition (from 1831).

Shimkus plays with an almost unnatural clarity, with a keen sense of dramatic tension. He can be impossibly brash but also quiet and introspective.

You can find out more about the two albums here, but the website is in German only.

The Toronto concert will include Isolde’s Liebestod and the Spinnerlied.

Here is a promotional video Shimkus made for the Wagner album (he was wearing the same blue hoodie at our Toronto interview):

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The podcast — all quickly pieced together using my smartphone:

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, the founder of Musical Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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