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Speaking Chopin's language

Warsaw musicians find common ground between the composer's poetic melodies and American jazz.

August 20, 2003|Howard Reich | Chicago Tribune

WARSAW — Nearly two centuries after his birth, Frederic Chopin remains a remarkably potent artistic force in Poland's capital, his age-old music inspiring perpetually new waves of creativity and invention.

Just this month, the second Chopiniana festival -- subtitled "Frederic Chopin Days in Warsaw" -- reached its artistic peak with a "Chopin and Jazz" concert that attracted capacity crowds and proved that even mazurkas and scherzos can swing freely.

Better yet, Polish musicians -- who since the Cold War have shown a profound affinity for American jazz techniques -- transformed Chopin's ineffably poetic melodies through deeply felt, intellectually rigorous improvisations.

Playing at an internationally competitive level, Warsaw's jazz artists somehow found common ground between Polish dance forms invented centuries ago and American jazz rhythms and blues-tinged scales that Chopin himself could not have anticipated.

Because Polish musicians live and breathe Chopin's music practically from the moment they first place their fingers on a piano or a fiddle, jazz artists such as violinist Maciej Strzelczyk and pianist Filip Wojciechowski were well equipped to radically reconceive themes from Chopin's preludes, waltzes and etudes. To these artists, reworking a motif from a classic Chopin piano piece is akin to an American player riffing on the chord changes of George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" -- this indigenous music courses through their veins.

But for an American listener visiting Warsaw, the opportunity to hear so much of Chopin's indelible piano music utterly reimagined was often startling, if only because of how seamlessly the two musical languages came together.

"For Polish jazz musicians, the idea of improvising and rewriting Chopin's music is actually the most natural thing in the world," said Aleksandra Kielan, organizer of the Chopiniana festival, which is designed to extend the possibilities of Chopin's music into unorthodox artistic terrain.

"You really can go into any jazz club in Warsaw, and sooner or later you will hear Chopin's themes played in jazz. All we are doing is giving this meeting between Chopin and jazz a bigger platform and a wider audience."

Indeed, it was standing-room-only at the Lapidarium, in Warsaw's Old Town, where the crowd listened raptly as several brilliant Polish jazz musicians boldly brought Chopin into the 21st century.

Violinist Strzelczyk, whose elegant style and unassailable intonation could be considered a Polish response to the art of Stephane Grappelli, led the World String Trio in sublimely expressive, gently swung versions of Chopin preludes, waltzes and mazurkas.

The music-making became deeper still when Wojciechowski's trio elicited Bill Evans-like impressionism in Chopin's Etude in E-flat minor and avant-garde pitch distortions in the Mazurka in D major. Considering the harmonically adventurous nature of so much of Chopin's music, it's tempting to believe that the composer would have been delighted.

Poland's long-running romance with jazz was developed decades ago by such notable figures as pianist Adam Makowicz and violinist Michael Urbaniak.

The relationship between the two musical cultures has flourished ever since, with artists such as Chicago vocalist Grazyna Auguscik taking the lead on the American side of the Atlantic.

In Warsaw, even traditional, classical performances of Chopin's music convey freshness of thought and interpretation, as the Chopiniana festival proved at enormous Lazienki Park, in the heart of Warsaw.

Seated at the foot of an enormous, landmark statue of Chopin, a procession of Polish pianists played the master's music at an exceptionally high level.

Though Chopin became a symbol of Poland for many reasons, the most important remains his uncanny gift for bringing distinctly Polish dance rhythms and song forms to bear on his immensely popular piano compositions.

Like Gershwin and any number of American jazz composers, Chopin found in folk idioms the essential musical elements of his art.

Moreover, much of Chopin's music bristles with patriotic spirit, particularly in his "Revolutionary" Etude in C minor, which he composed after learning of the Polish Uprising of November 1831. That piece, along with Chopin's famous "Heroic" Polonaise in A-flat major, was broadcast over the Polish airwaves as the Germans invaded the country during WWII.

"But afterward, this music was banned from being played during most of the Nazi occupation," said Polish journalist-author Olgierd Budrewicz, 80, who fought in the Polish resistance.

"The Germans were afraid of what Chopin's music could do to the hearts of Poles. This music affects us the same way today, which is why you hear Chopin's music constantly in Warsaw."

Howard Reich is an arts critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.

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