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Category: Interviews


Interview with professor Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń, Juror in the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw conducted during the Stage 3 of the Competition.

The Juror is a renowned pianist, prize-winner of the 1975 Chopin Competition, highest Polish rank professor of the Academy of Music in Bydgoszcz, where she was the tutor of Rafał Blechacz; at present she is the tutor of Paweł Wakarecy.

According to you, Mrs professor, does the ideal pattern of Fryderyk Chopin's music interpretation exist?

In my opinion, ideal remains ideal because it cannot be achieved. Even if it existed in theory, somebody would perform in this way and we would not need Chopin Competitions any more.

You are an outstanding teacher and your great success is translated into achievements of your students in the Chopin Competition – the previous edition's winner is Rafał Blechacz and in the present edition Paweł Wakarecy already succeeded to semi-finals. What is the secret of your method of work with pianists allowing them to approach the ideal as far as possible?

My method is lack of method. Every pianist is unique. But it's true that I can intuitively detect and elicit the "truth about Chopin".

There are various approaches to interpretation of Chopin's music, for example the one closest to his own performances...

I think it's not possible to play just like Chopin did – forget it. The most important thing is to look at the notes, which are only graphic signs, and find the music, and in the music – our own emotional world. According to me it is the only possible way to be convincing on the stage. An attempt to play like somebody else, even if this somebody else was to be Chopin, signifies giving up our own self.

It means, as I understand, that Paweł Wakarecy hasn't consulted e.g. Rafał Blechacz? Or did they have such joint sessions before the Competition?

They did not contact each other for sure because Rafał since completion of his studies has never again appeared in the Academy in Bydgoszcz.

You have achieved success as a pianist in the Chopin Competition in 1975, you received a distinction. When seen from the perspective of time, which role do you believe is more difficult in the Competition – the role of a pianist, or a juror?

For sure, more burden is put on the person who comes on stage. I think that when I was participating in the Chopin Competition I paid too much attention to perform in a perfect way, the way presented to me by my professor. My emotions at that time were "trimmed". Those times were different than now, at that time perfect interpretation was understood in a rigid way, academies taught the academic performance. I don't negate it, I even believe that everyone should be "academic" in a way even if it is only in order to stop being academic at a certain point. If a person knows what he abolishes and against what he rises, the person has profound argumentation for his deeds: his decisions are well thought-over, he doesn't like the state of affairs, he wants to change something. Then his arguments are logical and convincing. But if somebody interferes with certain canons by accident, just because the person doesn't see them, then such a pianist is only an amateur. His actions are not well justified in terms of logic or psychological development. In fact, when we deal with music, we enter the world of the composer and the performer, as if they were one person. This world has to have its own logic to be understandable for the listener. If it represents undefined chaos, accidental set of ideas which are copied, invented, then this music has no communicative power.

It means that the most important thing is individual, subjective experience of Chopin's music...

...based on the composition's text.

Do you have your own set of rules which are absolutely not to be broken in terms of interpreting Chopin's music? A set of cardinal mistakes?

One cardinal mistake for me is thumping out the piano (I'm sorry for the colloquialism). Perfect situation takes place when the performer and the instrument become one. Mistake consists of aggressive attitude to the language, finally the piano is sort of a tool of expression for the pianist. I pity the piano and ears of those who listen. I don't like this type of aggression. Certainly, I think it is mistake if in a composition somebody skips the psychological time, which obviously is not the same as the clock time. The psychological time is flexible and it should not have anything in common with the clockwork, metronome time.

Among pianists which have not succeeded to consecutive stages of this year's Chopin Competition, were there cases of people who can visibly feel the Chopin's music, but they were not good enough for the Competition?

In the first stage there were many very good pianists. But this stage didn't provide full opportunity to hear if the pianist in fact can feel Chopin. Etudes, which are mainly performed at this stage, realise only one aspect of piano music and a nocturne played conventionally also gives chance of success. Consequently, brilliant performance of etudes in the first stage resulted in green light and participation in the second stage, which is the reflection of understanding of the Chopin's music. Among those forty people I have noticed several very good pianists, I regretted that I didn't have the chance to verify if they are good Chopin pianists. Given person predispositions to perform Chopin music are difficult to describe, because every pianist is a bit different and every pianist uses Chopin to get into contact with the audience. However, the audience is made of individuals, it is not a “mass” of people, addressed in one voice. When we take the Jury, made of very sensitive and competent individuals, such discussions take place because one person believes a given pianist was convincing, while another completely didn't like the performance. I could say who in my opinion would be a good Chopin music pianist, but I am not allowed – the rules of Competition.

I understand, so maybe after the Competition. My last question is, according to the rules of Competition please answer YES or NO – in the semi-final is there a pianist who in your opinion is especially fascinating, of course, apart from Paweł Wakarecy?

Have I said that Paweł Wakarecy is especially fascinating for me?

I can't ask this question.

There is such a person...

Thank you for the interview.

Warsaw Philharmonic, October 15, 2010. Interview by Anna Iwanicka- Nijakowska, Chopin 2010 Celebrations Office. We would like to invite you to read another interview with professor Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń after announcing the Chopin Competition in Warsaw results.

Next part of the interview after the 16th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition results:

This year’s Competition was very special not only due to the Chopin Year, but also due to exceptionally high level of participants and changes in the Regulations. Did it make the assessment more difficult? How was voting conducted? Were there any discussions or debatable issues?

I cannot compare it to previous editions, because it is my first time I have been asked to be a Juror in this Competition. Voting was conducted "individually" and after the voting the results (anonymous) were evident, so there was no reason for discussion. Of course in the intermissions Jurors exchanged impressions and talked together. However, I don’t think that exchanging opinions could influence their individual choices. At least not in my case.

What criteria did Jurors take into consideration in assessing the pianists? Were there any defined patterns of interpretation of Chopin music?

I think that at assessing artistic work, in this case performance of a composition (I would like to once more underline that it is artistic work, and not a product of craft), justification for rigid criteria is impossible. The workshop layer can be defined according to certain standards, but not completely. For sure we can count mistakes or false sounds. However, the quality of sound, which may be located in the workshop layer, is a subjective category. We have no absolute values for deciding about the beauty of a sound with respect to the number of decibels, or its non resonant elements (that is taps and noise made by the mechanism and fingers). A beautiful performance for me takes place when the pianist presents full expressive content of a given piece. We cannot inform a mother about the death of her child with nice, soft, polite or even smiling way. In the language of music the sound operates in a similar way. Sometimes it can be terrifying or hardly audible… It has to express the content. However, the way the content is understood is a very personal issue in case of music. This is the source for various interpretations and the artist’s contribution. The pianist in performing the work of art makes use of his own sensitivity, not only the score is played but also artistic, creative values are introduced. When we talk about artists we can’t talk about patterns. An artist doesn’t use patterns, but his own knowledge, experience and sensitivity. Copyists need patterns. I believe it is not the Chopin Competition’s aim. Of course, the winners’ performances, especially the 1st prize winner’s performance may constitute a type of a pattern for those who in the future would like to take a similar stand. But such people aim at receiving prizes, not at truly independent expression in arts.

Were the choices in first stages confirmed in final stages?

I can talk only for myself. Some choices were confirmed, other underwent modifications for better locations or for worse.

Whom did you miss most in the final? Who was your favourite(s) in the Competition? How much did the Jury verdict resemble your individual opinions?

In general the verdict resembled my own choices. However, in majority of cases I allocated different positions to these six pianists. Leonora Armellini was the pianist whom I missed most in the final. It was a person who in every next stage received more points from me. For me her Polonaise-Fantaisie was a very profound experience of music. Moreover, this talented pianist made her appearance at the age of 18, we have to take it into consideration. In the whole Competition I was impatient to hear the performances of Trifonov, Bozhanov, Wunder. They were my favourites. Each of them for different reason. Each of them presented a new, innovative approach, each of them had something individual to offer.

According to you, who is the winner? (Not necessarily in terms of the factual 1st prize winner). Who failed most?

Time will show what is the answer to this question.

Was this year’s Competition a competition for pianists, artists, or maybe for "competition participants"?

I believe that this Competition has been first of all a competition for artists, that is for creative people. Many misunderstandings come from this fact. New ideas are always received with difficulties. People love most the values they know. Performances by Bozhanov (except for the last stage), Trifonov, and even Tyson, who was "laughed at" by many people had features of new understanding of Chopin’s music. What is fascinating for me is the fact that Chopin’s work is still tremendously alive, it can be read through sensitivity of a person of 21st century. We can’t forget his compositions, young people love his music and they can read it in the world of their emotions.

What is the modern idea of Chopin Competition? What is its aim in the world of ubiquitous media?

I believe that the Chopin’s competition is the most attractive competition for pianists for the reason of the Composer’s personality. No other instrument had such a composer who would explore all the universe of its sounds and potential. Some say that the idea of the Chopin Competition is "protection" of the style, that jurors should be "curators" of this work. For me it sounds a bit strange. The Curator works in a museum and protection is required for something incapable of independent life. I think Chopin’s compositions are robust and alive and they don’t need to be confined only in museums. Moreover, it is beneficial that young, interesting pianists stand up to this challenge. The Competition is first of all for young pianists, it allows for choosing those who are worth most to promote. Worth most in this particular moment we should add.

Which Competition rules are timeless and undisputed, and which are the reason for disputes (among Jurors, pianists and the audience)? Do you foresee possibilities for modification of the Competition’s formula in such a way to eliminate such threats (if any)?

In my opinion the monographicity rule should be inviolable. The programme’s order is disputable. Again, every consecutive Competition is changed a little. I don’t know what type of threats could appear in such a situation. Controversies and disputes accompanied every Competition. This Competition is no exception in this respect. Due to unusually extensive media coverage (probably this is the first competition with such a large number of spectators and listeners) also these controversies were increased. However, it stems only from the increased share of media presence in our lives, nothing more. We have to accept the state of affairs with all its positive and negative sides.

The Chopin Competition was transmitted in full by the Polish TVP Kultura channel and several Internet websites. Comments by journalists and music critics were present in public television and radio. How important is the media coverage for the Competition and its participants? Is it helpful or detrimental?

Honestly speaking, in present times publicity is necessary and even negative comments can have positive influence in the end. However, a participant who reads or listens to negative opinions about his performance most often cannot see it from a distance; it destroys his optimism needed so much on the stage. Commentators influence the opinion of many listeners and the latter ones in the end are not perfectly certain of their independent opinions. I believe that commentators, aware of their strong influence, should express their judgments in a more prudent way, at least for the sake of broad audience who finally feel lost in these disparities of opinions between jurors and commentators. However, the group of jurors finally gives the final verdict. This group has broad knowledge and experience in this domain and pays a lot of attention to their opinions. Each Juror experienced small individual disappointment due to the fact that the results on the common list were always different from the Jurors’ individual lists. However, nobody refused to sign the documents, nobody expressed any protests, nobody left the Jury in sing of a protest, nobody submitted for votum separatum. Because in this group people respect each other, everyone retained the right to their own opinion.

What is the role of a journalist in spreading information, commenting and forming the image of the Chopin Competition? On one side we could read superficial comments, on the other – thorough expert analyses…

I believe that journalists and Jurors have completely different points of view. The first group is prepared to receive the event thanks to their education, listening experience and theoretical knowledge. The other group apart from education, has a considerable practical experience. What for a journalist constitutes a problem – false notes, mistakes, for a pianist is not a proof of poor workshop (we are talking about the Competition level after the selection of the 1st stage, which was first of all the workshop stage). A journalist who during performance follows the score can see disparities, but the pianist knows that it is impossible to perform a given composition twice in exactly the same way. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine Chopin performing the same composition twice in the same way, even though we are left with one version. Score is for musicians who can read this code and hear the music behind these black signs. Most probably a journalist can hear the music, but it is a music he has in his memory after having heard other performances or recordings. He compares. The score is different, the music does not resemble the performances by Rubinstein or Zimerman or Blechacz, so he thinks it’s a bad sign. A Juror makes effort to clear his internal sense of hearing from customs and become open to what is happening here and now. Of course it’s not easy, but in case of particularly artistic performance, that is real, where the artist conveyed a message with his own voice, it was not difficult. (Sometimes the conveyance can be located within broadly understood tradition or even academic performance, but the performing artist’s personality can be heard. Wunder is such a case for me.)

In such a situation should we at all pay attention to comments in the media and posts on the discussion forums? Many of them presented negative approach to almost every "element" of the Competition – starting with the Jury and ending with the pianists’ appearance. Is it "criticizing" typical for Poles or a sign of envy, professional emptiness, and ignorance of Chopin’s music?

You have answered your own question here. Forming opinion on the basis of one- minute excerpts, chosen in such a way to be in line with commentators’ opinion constitutes manipulation and every wise listener should be aware of that. And persistent criticising in television or in the Internet… My God is it possible to become somebody else in one moment? "It’s great if somebody else fails…"

What is your opinion on Paweł Wakarecy’s performance in the Competition – from the point of view of a professor and a member of the Jury? What were his strong points, which areas require more work (change)?

It is difficult for me to form opinion about Paweł and it’s good I didn’t have the possibility to assess him. He is my student since 8 years. I am used to his strengths as an artist. I am not impressed anymore with the fact that he is an exceptionally emotional artist, that he has his own attitude to what he is interpreting. Often during performance on the stage he does things on the spur of the moment, for which he is sometimes severely criticised. However, these features were the most appreciated by the Jury and thanks to them he "seduced" the Jurors already in the first stage. Today to be "foreseeable" as an artist means a negative feature. What upset me most was when I heard that again and again he broke the limits or even fell over as young people use to say. The issue is that for the Jury the deficiencies that are easy to fix, coming from stress, are not a problem. I know myself and I am happy that the Regulations did not allow me to give points to Paweł. I think that more experience on stage will automatically stabilise his performance. It is not only a very creative pianist with musical sense, but also a very intelligent man.

Was it difficult to assess your own student’s performance and in a sense your own choices and conceptions realised by Paweł Wakarecy in the Competition? From the point of Jury, was the need for objective and reliable assessment of this player a troublesome issue?

In this Jury nobody did any favours. Students of other Jurors left the "battlefield" at various stages. Paweł did not realise my conceptions and choices. I could rather say such a thing about Rafał Blechacz’s performance because his sensitivity was very similar to mine and he immediately understood my conceptions. I didn’t even try to teach Paweł as I taught Rafał. It would be a complete failure. I tried to introduce more harmony in Paweł between him and his sensitivity, disposition and piano performances on the basis of Chopin’s compositions.

Do you agree with Paweł Wakarecy’s opinion about himself when he said that "this Competition is for pianists, and he is ONLY a student"? Is he, in your opinion, ONLY a student?

It’s only his unusual modesty and lack of skills in communication with media.

How long did Paweł’s preparation for the Chopin Competition take? What did you pay particular attention to when you worked on interpretation of Chopin’s compositions?

I don’t think it’s good to answer this question, people would think that I’m not telling the truth… All right, I’ll answer this question. Paweł started to work on compositions obligatory in stage 3 in June 2010. My role was limited to telling him what he shouldn’t do rather than what he should do. Typical embarras de richesse. In terms of my pedagogical experience I think he has got unusual musical eloquence and a record number of ideas per minute. I tried to "purify" his performance from the excess of plots to give it a better course, more space for the message.

Now, the Competition has ended, are you planning to introduce any changes in the scope of preparation of pianists for the next Competition?

I have repeated many times, that I don’t have any method. All depends on the person I am working with. Maybe among my students there won’t be any person who would like to participate in the next Competition, or maybe my students won’t be admitted to participate. We have 5 years to the next edition.

For you, subjectively, what did it mean to be a Juror in the Chopin Competition? What will you remember best?

For me all this period from the 2nd of October was a great Chopin celebration. I spent time among people whom I admired as musicians for years. Martha Argerich has been my favourite pianist since I can remember. Now I had the chance to get to know her as a woman. She is completely fantastic person, delicate, incredibly kind towards young people, natural. I have met Fou Ts’oung who is unbelievable in his passion, Mrs. Bella Davidovich – a woman of great class. I will not list every Juror, all of them I will remember very well.

Thank you for the interview.

Interview by Anna Iwanicka - Nijakowska, Chopin 2010 Celebrations Office.

professor Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń, phot. NIFC

professor Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń, phot. NIFC