A bow in time

Conductor-violist Krzysztof Chorzelski’s path to realizing his musical aspirations was a winding one

Krzysztof Chorzelski (photo credit: GIORGIA BERTAZZI)
Krzysztof Chorzelski
(photo credit: GIORGIA BERTAZZI)
Timing, of course, must be second nature to musicians; it is one of the fundamental tools of their craft. But Krzysztof Chorzelski seems to have made a habit of being in the right place at the right time all his life.
The Jewish 45-year-old Polish-born UK resident violist and conductor is currently in Israel to oversee two concerts by the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra – at the Jerusalem Theater (July 20, 5 p.m.) and at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium (July 21, 12 noon). The 100-strong ensemble, which operates under the aegis of the Jerusalem Music Center, will perform Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Symphony No. 5 in D minor by Shostakovich.
Chorzelski’s musical career did not exactly enjoy a meteoric start. Indeed, his first attempt at gaining entry to a prestigious musical education institution was a resounding failure. “They considered the school kids according to what they recognized as musical gifts, and they decided I didn’t have any,” says Chorzelski with a chuckle. “So they didn’t admit me to the first school, which was a very good school in Warsaw.”
The youngster was just seven at the time, but took the rejection with consummate equanimity. “I don’t remember feeling frustrated at the time. All I knew was that I loved music. I think I was too young to take it as a defeat of any kind. I don’t think it was traumatic. I was perhaps surprised.”
Chorzelski describes his parents as “frustrated musicians.” His father was an amateur violinist and his mother played a bit of piano. Classical music records provided a constant domestic backdrop, and the conductor-violist hungrily imbibed it all. The seeds of his future career path were well and truly sown, but there were still several hurdles to be negotiated before he could get his professional musicianship up and running.
The next rejection came one year after the first, but Chorzelski remained undeterred. “It didn’t really matter that much to me. I carried on listening to music, and I’d already started to whistle by then. I enjoyed whistling.”
He didn’t fare much better the second time around. “I tried for a much less prestigious school this time because I obviously wasn’t good enough for a top school. I think they took pity on me because I was so enthusiastic about music. They said well, if at the age of 14 you still want to play something, we suggest the trombone.”
Not exactly a vote of confidence. So Chorzelski pursed his lips and continued on his way – literally. “I was obsessed with classical music and listening to it, and I became quite good at whistling. I listened to all sorts of big classical pieces – a Mozart piano concerto, symphonies and stuff like that.”
Then Lady Luck decided to get in on the act. “The following summer, I was nine already, I was on holiday with my father. We were just walking in the mountains, and I must have started whistling. That’s what I did. Some people passed us walking in the opposite direction. I think they were intrigued, and they asked my dad something about me, and he told them that’s what I liked to do. They said they knew someone in Warsaw, a violinist in the radio orchestra, who was also a professional whistler and had even recorded something for Polish radio. That was quite amazing. His name was Zenon Kubis.”
Father and son wasted no time in pursuing the new lead. “We got in touch with him as soon as we got back to Warsaw and he was incredibly enthusiastic. He immediately said to me that I was going to start studying violin with him. He took me under his wing.”
But the pair’s enthusiasm quickly met with a bureaucratic hurdle. “It was September so all the places at the school had already been filled. But Kubis took me to meet the school directors and I whistled for them. I think they were amazed. I remember it very well because their reaction to me contrasted so sharply with the reactions I received a year before and two years before. That’s how it all started for me.”
Chorzelski was finally a bona fide budding musician. Kubis became his first violin teacher until, two years later, he received an offer to play in a German orchestra. Kubis’s wife took over, though shortly after that she decided the youth needed a different musical mentor and referred him to a certain Zenon Bakowski.
It proved to be an inspired choice. “He was the concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic, and I look on him as my sort of musical father,” Chorzelski says. “He never taught kids. He only taught at the Chopin Academy, but he was kind of intrigued by me. I think he wanted a challenge.”
And a challenge he got. “I think I wasn’t an easy student,” notes Chorzelski. “I didn’t just easily follow everything. I was quite resistant to methods, but obviously he must have recognized something in me, so he taught me. He had a fantastic basic understanding of the sound of the violin, based very much on the Russian school. I remember his idol was [renowned Russian violinist and violist] David Oistrakh. He really gave me the fundamentals to everything.”
After several years of earnest study with Bakowski, the teenager gained entry to the prestigious Chopin Academy, but shortly after that, the concertmaster suggested it was time for Chorzelski to move on.
The next stop along Chorzelski’s musical education path was acclaimed Russian violinist and educator Grigori Zhislin, who taught at the academy in Warsaw. While there was no doubting Zhislin’s credentials as a performer or pedagogue, logistics soon got in the way.
“I studied with him for a year in Warsaw, but he was never in Warsaw because he was busy playing concerts,” Chorzelski recalls. “But he told me he was going to become a professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He said if I wanted to study seriously, I should go there.”
A full scholarship was duly obtained, but even in London, the sporadic nature of Chorzelski’s meetings with Zhislin sadly continued. “I got to London and I felt like my life had just begun. But I realized that Zhislin was no more present in London than he was in Warsaw.”
Next in the teacher lineup was 81-year-old Ukrainian-born violinist Felix Andrievsky, who, finally, proved to be an enduring instructional connection. “I stayed with him for the rest of my formal studies,” says Chorzelski.
That stability, coupled with Andrievsky’s teaching skills, helped move the teenager along at a rapid pace and, in 1992, Chorzelski won the Wronski Solo Violin Competition in Warsaw. He subsequently performed as a recitalist and concert soloist around Europe, and also made several recordings for Polskie Radio and the BBC.
There was another formative slot in Chorzelski’s teenage years. “When I was 14, I met a wonderful [Jewish Polish- American] violinist and teacher, Roman Totenberg. He invited me to his summer courses in the United States at a place called Blue Hill [Maine]. I spent four consecutive summers at Blue Hill and this, for me, was a turning point. It was the first time I’d heard a Beethoven quartet. I don’t think I even knew what a string quartet was at the time.”
It was an epiphanous experience in more senses than one. Here he was, a teenager who was used to living under the strictures of a communist regime, having the time of his life playing his beloved classical music in rural Maine. “I was shocked by how open everybody was. I was also basically at least five years younger than anyone else on the course. They were all in their twenties, and there were even some in their thirties. I was 14 and I was treated like an equal.”
At the end of each summer, Chorzelski would return to Poland, to a high school and a regime that was anything but open. “I lived a sort of bipolar life in my teens,” he observes. “But the most important thing for me was the music. It became like a total narcotic for me. I remember hearing a Schubert quartet for the first time. These are moments that change your life because your horizons change forever.”
Back in London, a new direction presented itself when the Belcea Quartet asked him to help them out of a jam – as a violist. “They were about to enter their first competition, and suddenly their violist told them he didn’t want to play with them anymore. They had less than a week and they asked me if I wanted to help them. I don’t understand why they asked me, but I was intrigued. At the same time, I thought to myself, I’m not a violist, what am I doing?”
He thought it was just a temporary arrangement. “I told them I’d help them while they look for a violist, and that they should find a proper violist. That was the agreement. We did well in the competition and 21 years on they still haven’t found a proper violist,” he laughs.
Chorzelski makes frequent professional forays to the Holy Land, and feels a strong bond both with Israel and his Jewish roots. His mother was in the Warsaw Ghetto as a small child, and his maternal grandmother did not survive the war. “I am very much marked by the Holocaust,” he says. “I have a wonderful close family here, in Rishon Lezion, the descendants of my grandmother’s sister, who survived the war – hence my strong connection with Israel.”
Although Chorzelski’s grandmother perished, she left him with a legacy. “About three years ago, I discovered letters that my grandmother wrote to her sister from the ghetto. I knew they existed but I never had the courage to open them. One day I did. I read through them. It was a big shock for me. It was a sense of getting to know my grandmother and my mother as a baby, from these letters which were written inside the ghetto by a 30-year-old woman whose future was known. I think she sensed what was coming.”
That emotional baggage had to find some creative outlet and Chorzelski commissioned a work from British composer Joseph Fitz, which is called Letters from Warsaw. “At the time, I didn’t really have a clear idea of how the work was going to be, but he wrote a piece, got a viola and piano, and I premiered it about three years ago. I play it quite often. I program it in most of my recitals.”
After undertaking an albeit circuitous route through his own schooling, Chorzelski is fired up to impart some of his knowledge, expertise and life experience to his young charges in the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
“I think it something we should all do as musicians. As a musician, I spend so much of my time concentrating on myself, to perform. It is extremely important to get away from that and give something to younger people, who are so hungry. Their level of musicianship is so high already. To have a chance to meet and work with these young people is incredibly rewarding.”
For tickets and more information: Jerusalem (02)560-5755; Tel Aviv, *3766.