Pianist offers all-Chopin concert for composer's 200th

By Michael Richter

Classical music enthusiasts have little to celebrate these days, which is why in any year that marks the one or two hundredth year since the birth/death of a famous composer, they make a big celebration out of it. This time it’s Chopin’s 200th birthday, and our local Frederic Chopin Society is acting accordingly by bringing in famed Chopin interpreter Janina Fialkowska, who will perform at Macalester on Sunday, May 3.The event, which will feature a collection of shorter Chopin pieces, is a departure from the typical piano concert. Modern audiences tend to favor large-scale works that offer more on an intellectual level, such as Beethoven sonatas and lesser-known works from modern composers. Chopin, with his little musical poems and nineteenth-century romanticism, is almost looked down upon by performers. Fialkowska is a pianist who rejects this trend.

Her enthusiasm for Chopin is not accidental. Born in Montreal in 1951, Fialkowska began playing when she was four, taking lessons with her mother, who herself had studied with the famous French Chopin interpreter Alfred Cortot. She also had a Polish father, whom I can only assume was very enthusiastic about the composer’s work. By the age of 12, she had already made her debut with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and began taking lessons with accomplished concert pianists. At 17, she continued her studies in Paris with Yvonne Lefebure (another pupil of Cortot’s), who again instructed her in the French, Chopin-esque style of playing. After winning a young musician’s award in Canada, Fialkowska moved to New York and enrolled in the Julliard School of Music.

Her big break came during the inaugural Arthur Rubinstein piano competition in Israel. Due to judge favoritism, Fialkowska did not make the cut for the final round of performances. The musician in charge of the competition, legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, was so outraged that he threatened to leave the competition if Janina did not make the finals. The other judges gave in, and she ended the competition with the third place medal and a new friend and mentor in Rubinstein.

If you are not familiar with Arthur Rubinstein, he was widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest pianists. A celebrity in Europe and America, his concert career spanned over eighty years and his Chopin recordings are still regarded as the gold standard. While he did not officially teach Fialkowska, they were personal friends and at one point he told concert promoters that he would not perform in their city unless they also offered Fialkowska an engagement.

Rubinstein was a strong critic of what he saw as the flaws of modern pianists. He would often hear young musicians perform and remark, “That was all very nice, but when are you going to start making music?” Apparently he saw Fialkowska as one of the few with something personal and original to say. Critics agree. A recent reviewer wrote, “The whole audience was transported. Amazed, we experienced what Chopin demands, how his difficult, rich, and mysterious art still has such an impact.”

Her upcoming concert at Macalester will be dedicated to the memory of Rubinstein. Since it is the last and most notable concert in the Chopin Society’s five concert series, it is recommended that you buy tickets far in advance by calling (612) 822-0123 or e-mailing [email protected].