Roll Over Mozart

(life!.Travel, the Straits Times, Singapore, June 2010)

It’s Chopin’s year. And Warsaw’s too. The city where Chopin spent his formative years is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth in style.

Warsaw is in a party mood. Pretty much for the whole of 2010. The cause for celebration is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frédéric Chopin. Being the composer’s hometown, the capital city of Poland is pulling all the stops to drum up Chopin-mania, chiefly by rounding up the who’s who of the international music scene to perform at numerous venues throughout the year.

Most classical music fans think of Chopin as all French and are blissfully unaware of his Polish roots since the composer rose to fame in Paris.

“Chopin wouldn’t be who he was without Paris. But he wouldn’t be who he was either without Warsaw.” says Aleksander Laskowski, the Press Office Director for the Chopin2010 Celebrations Office. “This is where he was influenced by the folk culture, the dances, the language and landscape. His music, such as mazurka and polonaise, was affected by this period of his life. You have to come to Warsaw to fully understand Chopin.”

If you can’t pop over to Central Europe, then go down the road to the Botanic Gardens, where you’ll find the bronze monument of Chopin, unveiled in 2008 under an initiative of the Polish Embassy in Singapore as part of an ongoing exercise in deploying Chopin as a Polish cultural ambassador.

Born to a French father and a Polish mother, Chopin grew up in Warsaw. Young Chopin enjoyed a privileged life for his father taught French to the aristocrats. As a boy, he was a playmate to the son of Viceroy of the Kingdom of Poland. Chopin’s musical flair was spotted early on and at the age of 11, he performed for Tsar Alexander I. At 20, he left for a concert in Austria, totally unaware that he was never to return to his homeland again. A week after his departure, Warsaw plunged into political turmoil wrought by the Russian Empire. The composer sought refuge in Paris, which became his base for the rest of his life. He died of lung ailments at 39.

Concert Marathon

This former communist state is not the only country paying homage to the virtuoso. China, France, Italy, Spain and Austria are also hosting Chopin festivals. Lavished with spending money, the Polish Chopin2010 team aims to outdo the competitors.

Don’t despair that you have already missed Lang Lang’s opening act in January when the Chinese superstar pianist officially kicked off the bicentennial bash in Warsaw. Still to come are more star-studded happenings designed to appeal to all ages and musical orientations. Bigwigs, not only of the old school classical music variety, have been roped in to tinker the piano and other instruments. Bundled under the theme of “Sony: I Love Chopin” is a free concert in Warsaw in June. The performers include Annie Lennox, Alicia Keys and Bryan Adams. Genesis is rumoured to show up. The Folles Journees de Nantes, a French body specialising in lightening up Mozart, Bach, et al. for the young audience, will have a June weekend to run concurrent mini-concerts from dawn to dark.

For the connoisseurs of classical renditions, the highlights are the “Chopin and His Europe” festival in August and the prestigious International Chopin Competition in October. The former comprises mainly of evening recitals and symphonic concerts. But some surprises are thrown in forms such as Bobby McFerrin, known for his Don’t Worry Be Happy number.

Hip Value

Mr. Laskowski points out another reason for choosing Poland: value for money. A concert ticket to the Mozart House in Vienna will set you back by 40 euros. While in Poland, free concerts abound. And events like Folles Journees cost no more than a cinema entry.

However, the more prestigious events will not be easy on the pockets. The Chopin Competition, held every 5 years, commands great interest from the pros themselves and seats are snapped up quickly, prompting the organisers to demand premium for listening rights. If you can’t get in via the front door, then park yourself on a bench in the grounds behind Warsaw’s University of Music. Free flows of intoxicating sounds stream out from the university as the competitors rehearse the piano sonatas.

“Ticket costs aside, accommodation and food are much cheaper. You get a luxury room here for the same price of a budget bed in Vienna,” Mr. Laskowski adds. “Paris, Vienna and Berlin are great for music but you have already been there. Now, Warsaw is new.” He showed me the Chopin 2010 poster where the composer is dressed down in hip casuals. “This is to show Warsaw has long tradition European, but it is also cutting edge city.”

Today, Chopin wouldn’t recognise much of his hometown. World War II reduced the city to rubbles. But the Old Town has been faithfully restored, earning it a UNESCO World Heritage badge. With much of the city rebuilt during the Cold War, Warsaw is a quirky patchwork of Old World charm and austere communism leftovers. Factor in the post-communism construction boom, the changes are so rapid yet transient that last year, the Lonely Planet listed Warsaw as one of the top ten places to see. The message is: see Warsaw before it loses its Eastern European shades and morphed into just another European city.

Chopin Immersion

Local tourist agencies have been preparing for the expected increase in visitor numbers by offering packages along the theme of Chopin’s footsteps in Poland, ranging from 2 hours to 11 days. The longer tours string together places not related to Chopin but are must-sees while you’re in Poland. These include Kraków (the old capital and home to one of da Vinci’s four portraits of women), the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, the Wieliczka Salt Mines and Malbork Castle (the largest medieval castle in Europe).

For Chopin faithfuls, the Holy Grail is the composer’s birthplace in Zelazowa Wola, a small village 50km from the capital. It is listed in Patricia Schultz’s “1000 Places to See Before You Die”. Note that if you are not an absolute Chopin fan, you might take issue with Schultz. Even though the museum in Zelazowa Wola and the surrounding park have been given a total facelift, funded by the anniversary party budget, some visitors still considered it half-a-day not well spent. However, if your visit coincides with live piano recitals and the sun is cooperative, Zelazowa Wola can win you over.

Back in the city, wandering around to discover all the nooks and crannies that boast Chopin’s magic will set you in the mood for the bicentennial musical treats.

Do

  • Have small notes and coins handy. Businesses here are notorious for not having the exact change.
  • Know your circles and triangles. Restrooms are marked with a circle for girls and triangles for boys.
  • Have warm layers with you. Temperature fluctuates from t-shirt-and-shorts to sweater-required even in the summer months.
  • Catch a concert in the Congress Hall at the Palace of Culture. The building was a gift from Stalin and the concert hall was where the Rolling Stones had its first gig behind the Iron Curtains in 1967.
  • Get last minute tickets. If the event you’re after is in the Grand Theatre’s Moniuszko Hall, the huge sitting capacity means there are always some tickets left which are sold an hour before show time at a fraction of the full price.

Don’t

  • Say “thank you” when handing over the cash for a restaurant bill. In local parlance, that translates to “keep the change”.
  • Be disconcerted that the locals look stern and serious. Excessive, easy smiles can be taken as insincere or being up to no good.

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(life!.Travel, the Straits Times, Singapore, June 2010)

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