By Emre K. Erku Special to The Free Press
The Mankato Free Press
---- — When Ralph Votapek was a child growing up in Wisconsin during the 1940s, he realized he would never make it as a baseball player due to his unskilled attempts at the sport.
Therefore, in effort to appease this dilemma, the wise adolescent took up piano. By his early 20s, he was already winning prestigious musical recognitions such as the Naumburg Award, and serenading New York’s Carnegie Hall.
He then found himself making frequent guest solo appearances for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, concertizing with the New York Philharmonic, and traveling the world, performing in front of audiences from Argentina to Russia.
The masterful pianist played at Bethany Lutheran College no less than two years ago, and is once again leaving his post as Michigan State University’s Professor Emeritus of Piano to perform another set inside Bethany’s pristine Trinity Chapel.
What initially lured Votapek to Mankato was the invitation to play, but it also had to do with his outstanding relationship with one-time pupil and highly regarded Bethany piano instructor Bethel Balge.
“It was the influence of a former student,” said Votapek, referring to a reason why he picked Bethany. “Bethel received her undergrad at Michigan State – we’ve almost known each other 25 years.”
But, the Carnegie Hall veteran is a man who believes the fruits of success shouldn’t be tainted by foolishness. Even in his seasoned age he keeps humble, as if he was never successful in the first place.
“You’ll have to understand, this is a very competitive field,” said Votapek. “It’s a question of reengagements and going back to certain places. … I don’t take anything for granted.”
This is why he practices more than three hours a day, trying to master his technique so as it’s more comprehendible to him than the English language. When it’s him versus the crowd, all that’s running through his mind is the piece at hand.
“I’m not thinking about sunsets,” Votapek said. He is, however, thinking about “being in front of the fingers; making sure the mind is ahead of what’s coming next; remembering the harmony.”
Louis Jaeger, the director of fine arts at Bethany, praises Votapek’s impeccable talent, describing him as one of the most “powerful” and most “alive” pianists out there.
“When he sits down at the piano, he’s absolutely amazing,” Jaeger said.
What’s even more amazing is the fact that because Balge was one of Votapek’s old pupils, you can literally hear his style infused into her student’s play. It is as if Votapek’s piano screamed from one generation and is now echoing into posterity.
“You can see this thread, either inborn or nurtured,” said Jaeger, explaining the long-term effects of Votapek’s teachings. “From intensity to detail and the obvious passion for the music, you can see Ralph in our students.”
Votapek’s performance will include pieces from Ludwig Van Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Maurice Ravel and more.
If You Go What: Ralph Votapek performance When: 7 p.m. on Sunday Where: Bethany's Trinity Chapel Tickets: $8 for adults, $5 for students and seniors. Tickets available at the door one hour prior to the performance.