Casting His Spell


Pianist Gjergji Gaqi enchants Mayflower Hill audiences

By Colin Hickey
Photography by Robert P. Hernandez

Photo by Robert Hernandez
Gjergji Gaqi '07 is a magician of sorts.

The Colby senior has the power to pull you deep into a brooding, introspective soundscape and then, with virtually no pause, send you on a whitewater-rapid ride of sound waves that races the heart and delights the ears.

His magic wand is a piano.

"He is one of the best musicians I've seen at Colby," said Arnold Bernhard Professor of Arts and Humanities Paul Machlin, "and I've been at Colby for thirty-three years."

Gaqi, a native of Albania, is no stranger to accolades and awards. He earned the College's Music Department Prize in 2003-04, an honor to add to several national competitions he won in his homeland.

Last year he prevailed in Colby's concerto competition, earning him the right to play the first movement of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor, op. 37, with the Colby Symphony Orchestra.
Hear Gjergji Gaqi play:
Audio mp3 (23 MB)

In February he performed a concert at the Waterville Universalist-Unitarian Church. Gaqi plays the piano and occasionally the organ for the church's Sunday services. "I don't have enough time right now to learn the pedals," Gaqi said of the organ, "so it is not really any different from playing a normal keyboard."

Time is tight for Gaqi. Along with his academic load, he typically practices piano two to three hours a day and sometimes many hours more. Yet as the son of a composer, he says his regimen actually is a source of guilt.

"I think, generally speaking, that I never practice as much as I want to or probably as I should practice," he said, shortly after finishing an audition at the University of Maryland, one of several schools Gaqi was considering for graduate work in advanced piano study. He ulitmately decided to attend the University of Michigan School of Music.

Gaqi, who started playing seriously 15 years ago, realized early on that the great works of Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin and other classical giants demand an almost all-consuming exploration by the pianist before they can be played properly. "I can't really play a piece well unless I understand and feel the piece, so that I know what it is all about," he said.

That dedication to his art is coupled with remarkable ability, according to his piano teacher at Colby.

"I think there is no doubt about it that he has the technical skills, the ear, and the mind," Adjunct Associate Professor of Music Cheryl Tschanz Newkirk said. "He is a very intelligent young man."

He is fluent in Albanian, English, French, and Italian and fits in just fine at Colby, according to Tschanz Newkirk. "He gets around campus. He communicates well. He is open and friendly and has a lot of energy," she said.

But put a piano in front of him and Gaqi stands apart.
"I can't really play a piece well unless I understand and feel the piece, so that I know what it is all about."

Gjergji Gaqi '07

Machlin compares him to a great athlete in describing the technical brilliance of the finger coordination and speed he displays. Along with those physical gifts, Machlin said, Gaqi exhibits great control of the music"an ability to build a musical line and communicate a musical thought.

Machlin said Gaqi in effect creates stories with the music that draw an emotional response from his audience.

Gaqi did just that in his senior recital at Colby this year.

He played Rain Tree Sketch II, a piece by the avant-garde Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, at a slower tempo than the score called for because that tempo "didn't feel right," Gaqi said.

He followed with the hyperdrive sprint of Frédéric Chopin's Etude op. 10, No. 4 in C# Minor. The two pieces serve as testament both to Gaqi's versatility and his remarkable athleticism on the keyboard.

Machlin said Gaqi's understanding of the nuances and subtleties of musical expression go beyond what would be expected.

"For someone his age, he is incredibly mature in his choices in that realm," he said. "In how he phrases and shapes a melodic line, the choices he makes are profound, and you don't get that often in young players. You have to have certain life experiences in order to do that. If you talk to Gjergji, you realize he's had those experiences."

When Gaqi speaks of influences that have shaped his life, he points, not to the violence in his homeland, but to the great diversity he encountered at the United World College of the Adriatic in Duino, Italy. Gaqi said 90 nations were represented among the 200 students there. "I think my life is more diverse in a way than that of other people," Gaqi said. "I suppose you can say, essentially, that having seen more things gives you perspective."

Gaqi's goal in obtaining an advanced degree in piano is to pursue a music career as a teacher and performer. To rely on performing alone for a livelihood, he said, would be too much of a gamble.

But he said he also can't fathom a life without performing.

"I think the ultimate goal is to be able to have something to say that would be enjoyable to others," he said. "I mean, that is the hope. I don't know how often it happens."

A version of this article first appeared in Waterville's Morning Sentinel.