As front-grid classical music contests go, the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition is up there with the best of them. The 15th edition of the triennial event, which began life back in 1974 when the eponymous iconic pianist was still very much around, is currently up and running in its regular berth of the Tel Aviv Museum. There are 32 competitors this time, hailing from China, France, Taiwan, Italy, Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Romania, South Korea, USA, Russia, UK, Israel, Ukraine and Rubinstein’s country of birth, Poland. The opening recital round was completed yesterday, with the second 16-strong three-day recital phase starting tomorrow. The finals will take place May 5-11, after the contest lineup has been whittled down to half a dozen, with concerts held at the museum and at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium.
As usual, Arie Vardi heads the 11-member jury, although he will probably have to be excused from some of his duties tomorrow as he has an appointment with President Reuven Rivlin to pick up his Israel Prize award for services to the country’s musical endeavor. The jury includes illustrious musicians from China, the UK, the US, France, Israel, Russia and Canada, with the latter represented by Janina Fialkowska, an internationally renowned pianist who specializes in emotive renditions of works by Chopin.
Judging the performances of this year’s young hopefuls brings Fialkowska full circle.
She participated in the inaugural event, back in 1974, placing a creditable third and subsequently coming under the hugely influential and protective wing of Rubinstein himself. Presumably, part of that patronage was attributable to the fact that the then 23-year-old Canadian expressed a penchant for Rubinstein’s favored composer.
“Rubinstein saw in me a potential Chopin interpreter,” she explains. “I was incredibly lucky because I still consider him the greatest Chopin pianist I have ever heard and I had the great fortune of being able to play for him a huge chunk of Chopin’s works and benefit from his invaluable advice.”
It might be natural to assume that Fialkowska’s Polish genes – her father emigrated to Canada after World War II – may have led her in the direction of Chopin. But the Canadian feels that may be a simplistic take on her musical preferences and, anyway, it was not necessarily paternal encouragement that maneuvered her accordingly.
“If I answered ‘yes’ to this question, I would be saying that only French people could understand French music, only Russians can play Russian music and so on,” she observes. “I certainly think that, because my father was Polish and my mother – a Canadian – adored the music of Chopin, I was pushed in his direction very early on.”
Indeed, notes Fialkowska, her entry into the Chopin oeuvre was seamless.
“I have also noticed that I have never had any problems with the Polish rhythms Chopin uses throughout his works. I have never had to figure out the pulse of a Mazurka or a Polonaise for instance. This has come naturally to me. Whether this has to do with Polish genes, I’m not sure. Needless to say, I have always loved Chopin with all of my heart and have always felt comfortable playing his music. And remember, when one has even a drop of Polish blood, the music of Chopin means much more than just the music of a great composer. He is a national hero whose music held the country together when it wasn’t even a country and/or was under foreign oppression.”
Fialkowska’s international career may have enjoyed a flying start, in the wake of her success here, but regional politics almost put paid to that avenue of professional advancement. Despite coming from a musical family, and beginning on piano at a very young age, the state of the local music sector and Middle Eastern military shenanigans very nearly pointed her in a more conventional breadwinning direction.
“When I was 22, I nearly gave up the idea of becoming a concert pianist,” she recalls. “In Canada, at that time, there were no women concert pianists and very few male concert pianists and, basically, after music studies one became a teacher. Things have changed dramatically since then, of course, Canada having become one of the world’s leading producers of internationally acclaimed musicians. The fact is, I was 22 years old and had only played one professional concert in my entire life.
Even so, she did receive a generous offer of assistance which might have smoothed her path to international stardom.
“BC-Radio Canada had offered to sponsor me to represent Canada for the first Rubinstein competition to be held in 1973, but that first competition was canceled because of the war. I was very discouraged and I did not want to depend on my parents forever – much as I loved them – so I decided to enter the University of Montreal Law School and was accepted... my studies were to begin in September 1974. And then the competition was rescheduled... for September 1974. I chose to miss the first few days of school to have the opportunity to shake the hand of my idol, Arthur Rubinstein. I went to Jerusalem and my life was changed forever.
I never really wanted to become a lawyer... I believe I was just tempting fate.”
Fialkowska first set her hands on a keyboard at the tender age of four, initially under her mother’s tutelage. Even so, despite recognizing the advantages of an early start, she does not believe in pushing youngsters to test the limits of their potential from the get-go.
“Of course, it is a huge advantage, technically speaking. To have an intelligent first teacher who knows how to develop the muscles at an early age is invaluable. However, I do not believe in hours and hours of practicing technical exercises as a child.
An hour a day is ample. Perhaps after age 10 one can do more but before that is a bit ridiculous. It creates a kind of robotic playing – mindless, without variety of sound, without imagination, without thought, without music. To be a complete musician one has to live a little, enjoy one’s childhood a bit and have other interests such as literature and art, not to mention a comprehensive understanding of music history, theory etc., and musicians.”
After her success here, in 1974, it was all systems go for the young woman, with more than a little help from the object of her adulation.
“After meeting me in New York in 1975, a few times, after the competition and having me play for him for hours and hours, Rubinstein decided to really help me. At first he introduced me to all of his managers, but quickly observed that they would do nothing for me.”
The celebrated pianist pulled out all the stops for his Canadian protégée.
“On his last tour he made it a condition that for every concert he played, that I would get the same engagement the following year. There were 44 concerts and on these 44 concerts I based my entire career.”
Rubinstein’s support did not just take the form of getting Fialkowska gigs.
“His influence over me as a musician was enormous,” she continues. “He was not a teacher per se, but he inspired and he could explain beautifully and imaginatively.
Mostly what I learned from him was an awareness of my public and to experiment with projection of sounds, of emotions, of musical drama... to communicate. He also made me aware of the importance of structure, and of the pulse of a piece of music.
Using one’s imagination to understand the psyche of the composers and the times during which they lived was also of utmost importance .The biggest lesson was to be generous in all things and at all times.”
And now the Canadian is back where it all began for her, 43 years ago.
“It feels very strange but somehow right [to return as a jury member]. I have come full circle and I hope that I can help some young pianist’s... career as much as Rubinstein helped mine.”For more information: www.arims.org.il.