Flowers for Karol (photo by Janet Riehl)
By Janet Grace Riehl
My lunch with a world-famous pianist
“Would you like to have lunch with a world-famous pianist?” Leon asked over the phone.
Well, sure! Karol Radziwonowicz was in St. Louis to give a benefit concert for the University City Symphony Orchestra before going on to the Paderewski Festival in Paso Robles, California.
When we got to the Thai restaurant so near closing time, it was all ours: Leon, Karol, his sister Monika Zahorska and her husband. Karol had just stepped off the plane from Poland after a long flight and 45 minutes on the tarmac. Jet lag hadn’t made a dent in his old-world charm. He inclined his head slightly and clasped my hand as we were introduced. Both Karol and Leon are tall men (in the stratospheric range), but in each other’s company they were average size.
“Are you a musician, too?” Karol asked, searching for common ground.
“Not like you and Leon are. But my father (almost 98) raised us surrounded by the music of his youth. We sang in the car. We all played several instruments. When I was in high school I was the violin soloist for our orchestra. That was one of the scariest things I ever did.”
“Music was always around us, too. My father taught us piano.”
“Was that awkward?”
“No,” Monika explained. “When he taught us, he was ‘Professor.’ Then, when we were with the family, he was our father.”
“How do you prepare for a concert, Karol?”
“Sleep!” We laughed and nodded.
“Do you get nervous?”
“There needs to be some tension beforehand for it to be a good performance. But once I’m on stage it’s just me, the music, and the audience.”
“He says that it’s a spiritual connection with the audience,” Karol’s brother-in-law added. “An energy they share.”
The next night at the performance, I fully understood.
My front row seat at the Sheldon Concert Hall
The next night I was there on the spot when the doors opened at the Sheldon. I snagged two front row seats that would practically be in Karol’s lap—so close that when the performance started I could feel the vibrations from the Steinway.
The Sheldon Concert Hall has dream acoustics—in the top ten nationally. Built in 1914 it’s an intimate venue warmed by coffered ceilings, stained glass windows, and ornate carving from a time gone-by. There’s no bad seat in the house—every one of the 700 seats has a direct sight line to the stage.
Leon stepped out on stage to introduce Karol. He has the timing and the pacing of a stand-up comic. As he rolled out Karol’s credits he studiously avoided saying his last name—tricky for those of us who don’t speak Polish. So when he finally got to “Radziwonowicz” he paused, and then said it perfectly. The audience laughed and applauded. Back stage he’d asked Karol “How do you say your name.” Leon had parroted it back to him a couple of times, written it down in the international phonetic alphabet, and then pronounced it as if he’d been speaking Polish all his life.
Karol came out, bowed, and sat quietly in front of the piano, gathering himself. When he placed his fingers on the keys, he swept us into a world where only music lived. For 90 minutes—including several encores—he held us there. Leon sat next to me. As a pianist, singer, and conductor he knows this world at his core. He was in piano heaven. His long fingers followed the melody as he studied Karol’s fingering. He listened to each piece as he would to an old friend he hadn’t seen for awhile.
As a child I played piano as a duty—as many of us do. But that night I understood the magic. Karol is a poet at the piano whether he’s attacking the notes with great force, or caressing the keys as a lover might. He’s old school. Although he fingers can fly over the keys and he can reach the top of the decibel meter, his playing isn’t about speed and volume. I listened, and felt the music vibrating. As it entered my body I sometimes jerked, or giggled. And I watched. His body, his fingers, his feet on the sustain pedal, his head all were at one with the emerging music.
Music is an ephemeral art. It only exists when it’s played, and each artist makes it new again with his interpretation. Karol gave us music that was as much in the pauses as in the notes—filled with humor as well as ecstasy.
As the last note of the program softly echoed and then faded, we stood as one body. A beautiful woman delivered the biggest bouquet of flowers I’ve ever seen. He bowed and left the stage. When the applause called him back, he strode out with the gigantic bouquet in his arms and tenderly placed it on the floor in front of the piano to share with us. After three short encores he took his last bow, and took out his white handkerchief to wipe his brow of well-earned perspiration. Leon went backstage to congratulate him. When they both emerged, I stepped close to Karol and looked up. Again we clasped hands as I told him how much the music had touched me. That, indeed, I had felt this mystical communion he’d spoken about at lunch. Fellow musicians and aficionados came to share their affection and joy with him. They couldn’t get enough of him. The house manager quietly eased us toward the reception so he could close the door.
The reception room was in a swirl of orchestra players, members of St. Louis Polonia (the concert sponsor), and Karol’s adoring public. I saw his sister Monika—dizzy with happiness. “About what we were talking about at lunch yesterday? Your question about how Karol prepares for a concert? After his shower he called to me and said, ‘Monika, please don’t worry. I can feel it.’ So I had to let go.”
After the reception I slipped out through the Green Room with Leon and Karol’s family. Leon changed jackets. I seized the moment to snap a photo of the bouquet. Monika and her husband picked up paper bags filled with supplies, and we walked out the back door of the Sheldon.
A round from long-ago bonfires came to me: “All things must perish from under the sky. Music alone shall live. Music alone shall live. Never to die.” This night the music had come alive and so did we.
NOTE: Karol Radziwonowicz is a world-famous pianist educated in Poland and in the United States of America, who has performed throughout Europe, North and South America, Australia, and Asia. In February 2010, a recording of Radziwonowicz’s interpretations of Chopin’s music was taken aboard the NASA Space Shuttle mission STS-130 to the International Space Station, an achievement marked by EMI’s release of the disc “Chopin: the Space Concert.”
He has performed with the National Philharmonic, National Orchestra of Polish Radio and Television, Sinfonia Varsovia (Poland), St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra (Russia), Argentina Symphony Orchestra, and has been featured with concert orchestras in Vienna, Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg, San Francisco, Berlin, Zurich, New York, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Tokyo, Delhi, and Sydney.
He was the first pianist in the world to record the complete piano works of Ignacy Jan Paderewski . Since its inception in 2004, Radziwonowicz has also served as President of the International Paderewski Music Society in Warsaw. In this capacity he has overseen a number of publications, international conferences and concerts held in Poland and abroad, and has served as Director and Curator of the Paderewski Museum at Łazienki Palace in Warsaw.
And…he’s a darn nice guy.
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