Robert Fleitz’s talent as a pianist has taken him from Lakeland to the rarified cultural air of New York City, where he studied at the famed Julliard School and is forging a career as a performing artist and composer. That career has now taken an important leap forward, with the recent announcement that he is the recipient of the 2021 Pro Musicis International Award, an annual prize that recognizes young artists on the basis of skill but also for their willingness to engage in music education and outreach.
As part of his prize, Fleitz will give a concert at Carnegie Hall in October, but his hometown also will be a beneficiary. The Swan City Piano Festival, a project of Fleitz and his family that helped propel him to the Pro Musicis award, will make its debut starting this month with digital-only concerts and continuing in June with live performances. The intent is for the festival to become an annual event that brings a wide range of pianists to Lakeland.
“I’m very excited about it,” Fleitz said by phone from New York. “It’s fun to work with my family on a project like this. It’s cool to think of Lakeland as a nexus for music. We wanted to engage with the things that make Lakeland a great community.”
Fleitz, 28, is a 2011 graduate of Harrison School for the Arts and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Julliard, the prestigious New York conservatory, which awarded him a Career Advancement Fellowship. He has performed at venues around the world but also has returned occasionally to Lakeland to play, including a Rachmaninoff concerto with the Imperial Symphony Orchestra in 2017.
Because he also works as a music teacher, it was natural for Fleitz to enter the competition sponsored by Pro Musicis, an organization founded in 1965 in France to promote promising young artists but also to reward efforts to bring musical performances to underserved audiences. Previous winners include prominent pianists Jeffrey Kahane and Christopher O’Reilly.
Fleitz said the finals of the competition involved playing a 20-minute program that included Bach, a specially commissioned work and a movement from a Haydn sonata. But the competition also required submitting a proposal for a music outreach project. In Fleitz’s case, the project – the Swan City Piano Festival – was already in development. His playing and his idea for the festival won over the judges.
“(The award) recognizes a well-rounded musician who has an interest in the place of the arts in society,” he said.
The idea for the Swan City Piano Festival grew out of conversations between Fleitz and his father, Patrick Fleitz, who is head of the piano department at Harrison School for the Arts and for many years was the music director at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Lakeland, where he created the Midday Meditations music series that provided free one-hour concerts on Fridays.
“We wanted to use the piano to create a sense of community,” Robert Fleitz said. “Both of us have curatorial and entrepreneurial mindsets. There’s a lot of space for something like this in Lakeland. It’s harder to do in a place like New York.”
The festival is co-directed by Robert and Patrick Fleitz, but Patrick’s wife, Teresa, and their daughter, Claire, are also helping administer and publicize the event. Patrick Fleitz said his son’s attachment to Lakeland was a key part of the project.
“It’s really exciting for us and the city. As Robert has matured, he said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to bring a festival back here?’ The idea is to have something to appeal to many different kinds of people, not just the typical classical music crowd,” Patrick Fleitz said. “We hope to make it as accessible as possible.”
The festival was originally supposed to take place in March 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic forced a postponement. Now rescheduled, it will begin at 7 p.m. on April 23 with a Youtube and Zoom recital by Australian pianist Maxwell Foster and continue at 2 p.m. on April 25 with a streamed concert by Yvonne Chen, whose program will include the premiere of a work by another Harrison graduate, Alexia Riner.
The festival will resume with a three-day concert series June 18 to 20. Artists, times and venues for those concerts will be announced soon, although Patrick Fleitz said the concerts tentatively will include the Duo Beaux Arts and solo pianist Eunmi Ko.
As a result of Fleitz’s award, the festival will be underwritten in part by a $4,000 grant from Pro Musicis. That will allow the concerts to be given for free, although freewill donations will be accepted. The Fleitzes say they hope that future festivals will continue to be offered to the public on a donation basis.
Kerry Falwell, chair of the Mayor’s Council on the Arts, said she was aware that the festival was being planned but unfamiliar with the details.
“I think it’s brilliant,” she said. “I think an event of this caliber, it’s an honor to have it in Lakeland. It’s not often we get to have artistry like this. It’s a great opportunity.”
As for Robert Fleitz, he will have an opportunity few artists receive. The Pro Musicis award includes a concert date on Oct. 18 at Weill Hall, which is within the Carnegie Hall complex in New York. He said he has not yet decided what he will play, but the program likely will reflect his interests, which have turned to contemporary and even avant-garde works.
“As a pianist, I’ve been inspired to play music by living composers of the 20th and 21st centuries,” he said. “I’ve also gotten interested in performance art, which is related to my interest in education. A lot of avant-garde music is related to pedagogy and engaging the audience.”
He also will receive two days in a professional recording studio, which eventually could lead to an album.
“The most complex and expensive part of an album is the recording. It’s something I wouldn’t be able to do on my own,” Fleitz said.
Patrick Fleitz, who was his son’s first piano teacher, said he is proud not only of Robert’s skill as a pianist.
“He’s such a humble and kind human being. We are so close as a father and son and as a family,” he said. “We’ve known every since he was very young he had a special gift for music.”