Written by Jordan Randall
Photography by Jordan Randall
Robert Fleitz showcases the power of music through an immersive festival experience in Lakeland.
You can say a lot of things about the city of Lakeland, but never that it lacks culture. That’s mostly due to artists like Robert Fleitz, a pianist and Lakeland native. Fleitz has studied piano and taken his talent to venues all over the world. He’s seen the magic that music, especially through the piano, can bring into the lives of people of all ages. Now, Fleitz is aiming to bring a bit of that magic back here to Lakeland, through the very first Swan City Piano Festival.In 2011, Fleitz graduated from Harrison School for the Arts and went on to earn both his bachelor’s and master’s degree from The Juilliard School in New York City. Today, Fleitz has his sights on creating an event that could help inspire other pianists and artists. “It’s a celebration of pianists and piano literature that brings together really aesthetically diverse pianists from all over the country (and hopefully someday beyond) to build on Lakeland’s already vibrant art scene through piano playing.”
The festival gives Fleitz a chance to collaborate with other artists he’s both encountered and admired over the years. “I don’t really get to play or collaborate with other pianists too often. So, this is my chance to showcase some amazing artists who I love and otherwise haven’t gotten the chance to collaborate with artistically. I’m mostly a performer, but I also just love getting to share other people’s work and amplify other performers. Any chance in which I get to do that is an exciting opportunity.”
In the middle of our conversation, Fleitz remarked that “Lakeland is an exciting place to start something.” And it’s true. Lakeland is a city that embraces artists, entrepreneurs, and dreamers of all ages. There is a potential in this city to do better, be better, and make better. In fact, Fleitz credits his time at Harrison School for the Arts in Lakeland as a big contributor in getting him to where he is today.
“I had a really wonderful time at Harrison. I loved being there and have really fond memories of that time. It’s so special that we have a place like that in Lakeland, a place that’s dedicated to art for high school students.”
“I had a really wonderful time at Harrison. I loved being there and have really fond memories of that time. It’s so special that we have someplace like that in Lakeland, a place that’s dedicated to art for high school students. It was because I was a student there that it was possible for me to get where I am today. I had a lot of help and support [at Harrison]. I just remember being so inspired, getting to see dancers and actors and all artists doing their thing. It was really exciting.”
After his time at Harrison, Fleitz moved to New York City to study at The Juilliard School, who’s notable alumni include the likes of Viola Davis, Robin Williams, and Patti LuPone. The jump from Lakeland to “The City That Never Sleeps” is a pretty big leap, but it’s one Fleitz found both motivating and inspiring. “Moving to New York was really eye opening in very important ways. That juxtaposition of being alone but alone with millions of other people is amazing, and it just has this type of energy that can accelerate an idea or a path you’ve cultivated for yourself. Of course, sometimes I need to step outside of that rushed pace. But, for me, the distance between the two polarities in the juxtaposition is where I get the most inspiration. When there’s that clash between two impulses, that’s where I’m the most inspired.”
All that inspiration for Fleitz comes from not only the city, but from teaching. Before the Swan City Piano Festival, he taught piano for the New York Philharmonic Education Department for several years. “Teaching has been really wonderful, interesting, and informative. Especially with my work with the New York Philharmonic, which is in a classroom setting, so I was interacting with a lot of students who otherwise don’t have much musical training. It was interesting to work with them because it reminded me of what was important. I’ve been a part of such a rigorous music program and course study for so many years that having an opportunity to hear what somebody else hears … [ I get to experience] their genuine reactions to music, and it has provided me with so much information on how classical music exists out there in the world and the kind of legacy it carries.”
The legacy of classical music and the power of the piano will continue to be showcased through the Swan City Piano Festival, taking place every year in Lakeland. The festival is made possible due to both Robert and his dad, Patrick Fleitz, who was Robert’s music teacher for nearly 10 years. Robert was also the recipient of the 2021 Pro Musicis International Award. The award is an annual prize that recognizes young artists for both their skillset and their engagement in music education and outreach. Not only has this award propelled the piano festival into reality, but also it has given Fleitz the opportunity to perform in Weill Hall, which is a part of the famous Carnegie Hall, in October 2021.
“It’s a celebration of pianists and piano literature that brings together really aesthetically diverse pianists from all over the country (and hopefully someday beyond) to build on Lakeland’s already vibrant art scene through piano playing.”
The Swan City Piano Festival is for people of all ages, but nothing compares to getting an early introduction to the arts. When reflecting on what a festival like this would have meant to him as a young kid, Fleitz says, “Getting a chance to see the possibilities of piano would have been so inspiring and exciting. To know that I lived in a place that valued that, would have been so cool.”
It’s hard not to get choked up thinking about the impact a festival like this could have on a city like Lakeland. After an isolating year like our last, with so much of the arts shutting down and going idle, just to see the lights on in a recital hall is enough to well up some tears. But to be amongst other artists, listening, learning, and drawing inspiration, that is what we’ve been waiting for. To experience art, sure, but to experience it together.
“Piano is a very solitary instrument,” says Fleitz. “I’m playing solo most of the time. Especially in the last year with Covid, I’ve been playing a lot more solo recitals and preparing for the future. There’s just been a lot of time alone with my instrument. Which can be good, it’s nice to have that refuge. But it’s especially nice to have this opportunity that’s about bringing other people into the piano community and expanding outward.”