WHEN Ralf Gothoni accepted an invitation to play the piano at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., last February, he suspected nothing.
The Finnish classical pianist performed an evening concert of chamber music and solo repertory to a crowd of 200. Afterward, he took a bow, agreed to meet a friend for breakfast, and tottered off to bed.
It was a setup.
The next morning, a groggy-eyed Mr. Gothoni was ushered into a room packed with streamers, balloons, television cameras, and paparazzi.
David Pocock, artistic director of the Irving S. Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, stepped forward.
First, he told Gothoni that he had funneled money to Vanderbilt to sponsor the concert.
Next, he told him that his performance had been secretly evaluated by a group of 13 judges.
Then he officially named Gothoni winner of the 1994 Glimore Artist Award, a dizzying four-year package of financial support, management, and concert tours worth $500,000.
``It was a great surprise, of course,'' Gothoni said in a telephone interview from his home in Hamburg, Germany. ``The fact that this award is given by a lot of fine musicians makes it very valuable.''
Not only is the Gilmore the largest single prize in classical music, it's also the most mysterious. Like the MacArthur Foundation's legendary ``genius'' awards, the Gilmore comes out of the clear blue sky. Artists have no idea they've even competed until they win.
``I flew 138,000 miles last year listening to concerts all over the world,'' says Mr. Pocock, head of the 13-member Gilmore panel. ``We can hear as many artists as we want as often as we want, under natural conditions - without them trying to play a certain way for us.''
Some concerts `catastrophic'
Gilmore judges attend roughly 30 concerts every year for three years, listening to noteworthy pianists play before selecting a winner.
``Ten percent of the concerts are a catastrophe, 70 percent are not exciting enough, and 20 percent demand a second, third, or fourth hearing,'' Pocock says. ``We look for someone whose career should be larger than it is, someone whose playing doesn't have the notoriety it warrants.''
According to Pocock, the first Gilmore winner, English artist David Owen Norris, rose from obscurity to play more than 30 concerts a year. He says Gothoni is cast in the same mold.
A music professor at academies in Helsinki and Hamburg, Gothoni is best known for his work in chamber music and lieder.
``Gothoni is busy as an accompanist because he doesn't play a lot of solo recitals. He's been pigeonholed as a collaborator, and he hasn't been able to show he's an all-around great pianist. We hope to launch him as a solo player.''
Gothoni's performance will be the centerpiece of this year's Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, which opens Saturday in Kalamazoo, Mich. (See related story.)
At the opening, Gothoni will play Beethoven's Piano Concerto in C minor. In addition to playing the solo sections, he will conduct the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra from the keyboard.
``Usually, there's an orchestra, a conductor, and a soloist,'' Gothoni says. ``In this arrangement, the conductor cannot really communicate with the soloist.''
Playing with his back to the audience on a grand piano, Gothoni conducts the orchestra with his eyes or a single hand ``during tuttis, when sometimes I have one free.''
On the following evening, he will perform a solo concert of sonatas by Liszt and Schubert.
``The first time I heard Ralf he was playing in a voice rehearsal with American soprano Barbara Hendricks,'' Pocock says. ``It was the finest vocal accompaniment I've ever heard. The next time was a concerto with an orchestra, and it was musically perfect.''
Goal to identify with composer
What makes Gothoni special?
``His playing is polished, intricately felt, and always controlled,'' Pocock says. ``There are no memory lapses or campiness, just serious, musical piano and beautiful sound. He has an incredible sense of architecture and balance.''
While Gothoni says the award has already boosted his solo career, his ambition is not fame as much as the opportunity to travel, play the piano, and ``do my best.''
``I think music is something else than an instrument to becoming famous,'' he says. ``It is a chance to study life - all aspects of it - and these aspects I hope we are able to give to the audience. My goal is to come as close as possible to the moment the work was created, to identify myself as closely as possible with the composer.''
On being pigeonholed: ``They say if you are in chamber music you are not as valuable as a so-called soloist. The business aspect of music today is much too strong. In my opinion, there are no chamber musicians and no soloists. Everything is music.''
At the announcement ceremony in Nashville, Tenn., Gothoni reacted to the award with amazing self-containment.
``Oh that's fine,'' the pianist said after the award was explained to him. ``I think that should be fine.''