French Pianist Wins Surprise, Prestigious $300,000 Award

The 26-year-old French pianist Alexandre Kantorow was not exactly sure what the man from Kalamazoo, Mich., wanted when he invited him to lunch last spring in Italy.

So when that man, Pierre van der Westhuizen, the executive and artistic director of the Irving S. Gilmore International Piano Festival, began to tell Kantorow that he had won the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in classical music, he was stunned.

“I was absolutely just on my knees,” he said. “It was a bit like a ‘You’re a wizard, Harry,’ kind of moment, from ‘Harry Potter.’”

The Gilmore announced on Wednesday that Kantorow would join the elite and eclectic group of pianists who have won the award, which is given every four years. (The pandemic caused a yearlong delay; the last winner, Igor Levit, was announced in 2018.)

The Gilmore is not awarded as part of a competition, so contestants do not even know that they are being considered for it. Instead, a small, anonymous jury of cultural leaders travels incognito to concerts around the world, searching for the winning artist with the potential to, according to the prize, “make a real impact on music.”

The award is often thought of as the music world’s version of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants: a prize that cannot be applied for or sought. The long, confidential selection process aims to judge pianists over a sustained period of time, in contrast to the high-pressure atmosphere of competitions.

Jury members had been attending Kantorow’s concerts without his knowledge for years, trailing him in Germany, Switzerland, Minnesota, Florida and elsewhere. They also listened to his recordings and watched videos of his performances. They were impressed by his charisma, curiosity and “inquisitive nature,” van der Westhuizen said.

“Nothing is ever the same twice,” he added. “It’s always fresh and always interesting. He has so much to say. There’s nothing that holds him back in what he wants to say and how he wants to say it.”

In 2019, Kantorow won the gold medal at the International Tchaikovsky Competition, one of the world’s most important music contests. He also received the prestigious Grand Prix award there.

He will receive $50,000 outright to spend as he wishes and can apply the rest to anything that furthers his career or artistry over a four-year period, subject to the Gilmore’s approval. Kantorow said that he was not yet sure how he would spend the money but that he hoped to create something “that lasts, that is concrete.” He is thinking about a film project, or possibly creating a space where musicians could practice and gather.

Other winners of the award include Rafal Blechacz, Kirill Gerstein, Ingrid Fliter, Piotr Anderszewski and Leif Ove Andsnes.

Kantorow was born in Clermont-Ferrand, France, to musicians, and began playing piano at age 5. He has recorded several albums, including Saint-Saëns piano concertos and works by Brahms.

“His movements are free and loose yet precise, like a well-coordinated rag doll,” the magazine Gramophone wrote last year. “He is one of the most relaxed pianists you could imagine.”

Kantorow will perform and speak in Kalamazoo on Sunday. In October, he will come to Carnegie Hall, playing a recital of works by Liszt, Brahms, Schubert and Bach.

“This is the best kind of gift a young artist can receive,” he said. “I really feel I have wings for the future.”

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