Pianist’s love of nature

Daniel Verstappen’s first love is the piano but coming a close second is his love of nature. A visit to New Zealand has been inevitable for the Belgian musician with a penchant for mixing things up, Rebecca Fox finds.

Whether it is by steaming volcanoes, under dancing northern lights or the on the stages of the world’s top concert halls, pianist and composer Daniel Verstappen is in his element.

Just as he is performing with 3-D multi-media presentations, lights and large orchestras in front of royalty through to small acoustic shows with just one other musician.

What they all have in common is Verstappen’s drive to connect cultures through music.

From Belgium, Verstappen has been touring his latest album Reconnection and continuing his drive to connect with the culture in each country he visits by inviting a local choir or musicians to perform with him.

"It defines me as an artist. You also see it in my music, connecting different styles."

The northern lights danced for Verstappen's music video in Pitea, Sweden.
The northern lights danced for Verstappen's music video in Pitea, Sweden.
Verstappen will come to New Zealand for the first time this month after playing the Sydney Opera House with violinist Beth Georgiou and Sydney Conservatorium’s pianist Michael de Huy. He will perform at the Auckland Town Hall, again joined by Georgiou, and with the Polynesian musical group Musika Collective, a string quartet and a pianist, in Christchurch with home town girl, violinist and composer Fiona Pears and in Hamilton.

"I’m very excited. I really love the nature and always wanted to go to New Zealand."

He has also squeezed in a visit and concert in Queenstown, having had the Lakes district and Te Atamira brought to his attention by his tour manager. Te Atamira’s vision of being a cultural centre resonated with Verstappen’s own ethos.

"Connecting with cultures is something I really enjoy. It all led to a combination of beautiful things together."

Queenstown music students, pianist Rachel Yoo, a final year pupil at Wakatipu High School and 11-year-old violinist Elton Leatherbarrow, will join Verstappen on stage. He is also holding his only New Zealand masterclass in the resort town.

"They are a cultural house so it makes sense."

Verstappen believes in the importance of inspiring young musicians. He was only 5 when he discovered the piano.

"I ask my parents if I can have a piano. I was very connected with piano — it was something I could express my emotions into."

While a happy child, he was a bit reserved so the piano served as his "soulmate". The importance of this to his childhood, led Verstappen to compose a piece of music called Soulmate.

These days he calls his grand piano his "baby".

"The piano itself even when I play on all different pianos, it’s not the piano itself. It’s funny, I can play so many different pianos, yet still have the same feeling."

When he sits in front of a piano, he gets the same feeling now at 33, as he did as a child.

"As a child you understand what makes you happy. Sitting behind a piano and doing just what you like and you have a returning reverb of resonance, this makes you happy."

Verstappen also learnt the double bass growing up and played it in orchestras but it is something he has since set aside to concentrate on the piano.

"I don’t miss it. But tell me you not play the piano, it is not something I can miss."

Belgian pianist Daniel Verstappen loves performing and nature so likes to combine the two...
Belgian pianist Daniel Verstappen loves performing and nature so likes to combine the two whenever he can. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED
It has been that way since he started studying the piano.

"Quite young despite learning notes or learning technique, I had the talent to play the piano out of nothing and actually it is what I’m doing my whole life."

While he went on to study classical piano, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music at the Lemmens Institute in Leuven and playing with the Brussels Philharmonic, he has always improvised and written his own music based on his own experiences and emotions. He released his first album in 2016 From The Heart written for piano and orchestra.

"I just go to the piano and I start to play and I record it — voila, there is a song. It is all based on pure feelings, emotions. What I always hope with every concert, people come to me touched, sometimes they cry. I don’t want them to cry, I want them to feel the music, that is what I am living for."

The amount of time he spends on the piano depends on his touring schedule or if he has a concert to prepare for but often he likes to play just for his own enjoyment.

"For me just playing piano connecting with myself and putting all my emotions, if I have some stress or whatever, I can put everything in the piano and it’s out. The beautiful thing is sometimes it is a new song, not always."

He describes his own music style as neo-classical although he also incorporates electronic music into his work.

For this tour, while playing songs from his new album, he will also play some of his favourite music from classical composers as well as songs from movies.

"It’s a combination of classical and modern repertoire."

Verstappen likes to mix his concerts up to show the diversity of his piano playing abilities but also to also reach a broad audience from children to the elderly.

"It’s connecting with different people."

While his tour has featured 3-D visuals, sound and lighting, in New Zealand’s smaller venues he will performing an acoustic programme as logistically it proved too difficult to do the bigger show here.

"It’ll be very uplifting, very energetic even with an acoustic concert you can do really entertaining stuff."

Verstappen likes both types of concerts.

"With a small, intimate concert, like what is going to happen [there], you have more connection with the public and it’s very nice to see and hear the public very close. on the other hand the big shows, for me the adrenaline is a bit bigger, you have to think about more things, visuals, more musicians."

The smaller shows are without those distractions allowing him to concentrate on the music alone. He also likes to spend a portion of his concerts improvising.

"I just improvise, for like five minutes, without any preparation."

To date one of the concerts that stands out the most for him is his performance at the World Expo in Dubai in 2022 in the presence of King Philippe and Queen Mathilde to mark Belgium day.

"It’s difficult to pick one. The Dubai expo where I represent my country, it was also very special. To be chosen to do this for my country."

Verstappen was blown away by the landscape and his experience in Iceland.
Verstappen was blown away by the landscape and his experience in Iceland.
Another one in November was in Harpa, Reykjavik in Iceland where he also recorded a music video with violinist Marina Barskaya.

"It was very impressive. I cannot describe it. It’s a little bit mind blowing. To combine my music with this landscape."

It was even more significant given some places where it was filmed have now been destroyed by the eruption of the Fagradalsfjall volcano earlier this year. Verstappen dedicated his video to the residents of Grindavik.

He is also honoured to hear that among the special guests at his Sydney show will be New South Wales governor Margaret Beazley.

"It’s very special."

Verstappen hopes his trip to Australasia will not be his last. He wants to establish a long-term relationship with his audience here.

"It is not just to come one time and say goodbye."

While he describes music as his life — he also runs his own production company and produces his own music videos — in his spare time Verstappen is a keen runner and hiker which allows him to get out in nature.

"I’m also artistically guiding a lot. I like to run in the nature and if it’s not good weather like it is in Belgium it’s the gym."

In the days before his concert in Queenstown, he hopes to visit Lake Wanaka and see a bit of Queenstown while he is there.

To see:

RECONNECTION World Tour with pianist Daniel Verstappen
Te Atamira, April 17, 7pm
Masterclass, April 17, 1pm, Puawai.