‘I Am A Guitar’ international festival unveils the riches of Polish classical guitar music

Polish strings attached: Kowalski’s festival concert at Tzavta should be thoroughly entertaining, engaging, enlightening and pretty exciting, too.

 ACCLAIMED POLISH guitarist Mateusz Kowalski will be appearing in the I Am A Guitar festival, this month.  (photo credit: Bartosz Kołaczkowski)
ACCLAIMED POLISH guitarist Mateusz Kowalski will be appearing in the I Am A Guitar festival, this month.
(photo credit: Bartosz Kołaczkowski)

The rock world’s loss is the classical domain’s gain. Had things gone differently, Mateusz Kowalski may have earned a living strutting the stages of the world’s stadia and cavernous auditoria, unleashing lightning riffs piped through ear-shattering amplification levels, rather than applying filigree touches to his guitar strings, albeit sometimes at hardly credible high-speed.

The 27-year-old award-winning Polish instrumentalist is in the lineup of the third edition of the international I Am A Guitar festival, which takes place at Tzavta in Tel Aviv, October 24-27. He brings with him the hefty cultural baggage he has made a point of unveiling to the world.

I put it to him that most of us do not naturally think of Poland and the guitar in the same breath. Kowalski concurred and took the incongruity mindset a step further. “I would say that most people don’t even associate the guitar with the world of classical music,” he notes.

He is not exactly standing around bemoaning that inaccuracy. He is doing something about righting that gross misconception, with his live and recorded musical efforts. His latest album, Polish Romantic Guitar, features works by Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz, Felix Horetzky, Stanisław Szczepanowski and Marek Konrad Sokołowski, all 19th-century Polish virtuoso guitarists and composers.

“It is not popular knowledge that these were the Poles who contributed significantly to the fame and popularity of the guitar in its capacity of a virtuoso instrument holding an important place in the art of music.”

Mateusz Kowalski

Polish contributions to the guitar

Naturally, there are a couple of scores by Chopin in there, too, with mazurkas transcribed for guitar. “It is not popular knowledge that these were the Poles who contributed significantly to the fame and popularity of the guitar in its capacity of a virtuoso instrument holding an important place in the art of music,” Kowalski points out in the album liner notes.

 A guitar lies across a piano. (credit: FLICKR) A guitar lies across a piano. (credit: FLICKR)

It is high time, he feels, they were given their due. “Masters of interpretation, improvisation and composition captivated the highest echelons of the creme de la creme, connoisseurs of all things beautiful and broad audiences,” Kowalski adds.

We are talking about bona fide A-lister artists of the day. “Szczepanowski was the court guitarist of the king of Belgium, Queen Victoria and of the queen of Spain,” he states. “These guitarists were superstars of their time. Sokołowski was described by the London press as the first European guitarist. So it is surprising when you see how popular they were then and how [un]popular they are now.” For Kowalski that was simply a travesty of justice. “It felt like something I need to change with my CD. I tried to change that perception with the CD.”

As the saying goes in Britain, particularly in the more northerly reaches, “today’s news is tomorrow’s chip (a.k.a. french fry) wrapper.” As any PR professional worth their salt knows, you’ve got to keep your product out there and uppermost in the public’s consciousness.

For some reason or other, the aforesaid erstwhile stellar foursome lost marketing ground. Hopefully, as Polish Romantic Guitar sales increase and, possibly, following Kowalski’s showing in Tel Aviv, the gifted Polish gents may recover some of their losses due.

At his Tel Aviv gig (October 27, 9 p.m.), Kowalski will, no doubt, display some of his scintillating fingerwork technique, which might easily have been denied to classical music lovers and instead, could have had rock fans’ jaws dropping. “I started playing guitar when I was seven,” he recalls. “That was because my brother and my cousin played guitar, but they mostly played rock music, you know, bands like Queen and the classics.”

Classical rock god

HAD THINGS gone differently for the youngster, rock guitar gods like Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton may very well have had some latter-day competition in the white-hot riff stakes.

The young lad’s parents had other ideas, which came as quite a surprise for the new student. “When my parents sent me to music school, I thought I am going to play rock music, like Queen or something like that,” he laughs. “I got my first CD of Queen when I was six. It was [1980 release] ‘The Game’.” He was in for a rude awakening. This was a classical music conservatory. “I had a bit of a shock when I got to the school.”

Nevertheless, he stuck to it and immersed himself in the rudiments of scales, and the intricacies of phrasing and getting his fingers to play the right strings at the right time. He put in the practice hours and made good progress, although his first musical love kept on hovering in the background. It may also have had something to do with hitting his teenage rebellion stride.

“When I was 12 or 13, I wanted to leave the classical guitar and play acoustic and electric guitar,” Kowalski says. That idea was headed off at the pass in the most genial and understanding manner. “My teacher made a good move,” he chuckles. “He said, ok, this semester you can play whatever you want. So I chose to play [an anthemic Led Zeppelin number] ‘Stairway to Heaven’ with a very interesting arrangement, and some other fingerstyle pieces that were very interesting to me then.” The teenager really got into the rock thing, which resulted in the desired bottom line, at least as far as his teacher was concerned.

The latter must have realized he needed to let matters run their course. “I started to practice for so many hours. And then complicated classical pieces began to be more interesting for me,” Kowalski explains. “I was finally able to bring the music out of them. That is hard to do. The guitar is such a complicated instrument, especially for high-level performance. It is not so obvious that you will go to a guitar recital and hear the same kind of emotion and musicality that you hear from a piano recital.” That the Pole has achieved those heights will be clear to his Tzavta audience, later this month.

The twenty-something master musician also has a message for anyone out there who prefers to have their favorite works played strictly according to the book. “My second music teacher at The Chopin University of Music in Warsaw – now I also teach at that university – the main thing he taught me was to never play empty notes. He said every note should have intention and meaning. Otherwise, there is no point in playing.”

One of Kowalski’s musical idols is Johann Sebastian Bach. In that regard, he is no different from thousands of his fellow musicians over the past three-plus centuries. He is also planning to slot in a Bach score during his Tel Aviv concert. “I don’t know who said it, maybe it was [19th-century French Romantic composer Louis-Hector] Berlioz, there is God and there is Bach. I keep his ‘Major Prelude [in C Major]’ in my repertoire because it works like a mirror for me. Through that work each year, I can see how my approach to music is changing.”

Bach has also been called by many the first jazz musician. “It is something that is very important for classical musicians to be able to improvise,” Kowalski states. “The first time I tried to play jazz standards, I didn’t have any idea how to do that.” A little help from some friends was at hand. “I know jazz pianists who could show me some stuff. I tried to figure it out on my own. And now I see that people who play classical music, who didn’t improvise, lack the natural instinctive approach to the music.”

Kowalski’s festival concert at Tzavta should be thoroughly entertaining, engaging, enlightening and pretty exciting, too.

For tickets and more information, visit: https://www.tzavta.co.il