Chopin Concerts in the park: Warsaw, a picture of worlds apart
THE Łazienki Royal Park in Warsaw lights up like a handful of kryptonite on summer evenings, strung up in lights, with an entirely otherworldly air all about it. On the bright Sunday of the May 14th, earlier this year, the park witnessed the opening of the 58th Chopin Concerts, a fixture event on the country’s cultural calendar. The mood was decidedly transcendental.
As a part of the annual celebrations, every Sunday until September 24, the park will host two concerts by prominent pianists (at noon and at 4 pm daily), at the foot of the landmark Chopin monument in the park, made by the Polish sculptor Waclaw Szymanowski. Nearly forty pianists from Lithuania, Japan, Ukraine, the UK and the United States are expected to perform this year.
For the musically disinclined traveller, meanwhile, the first point of contact with the works of the pianist-composer of the romantic school, Frederic François Chopin (1810-1849), is likely to be in an elevator chime, or even the room alarms at the hotels. (Although you’d still need someone to point that out for you.)
The celebrations around Chopin are, nevertheless, among the chief reasons to venture this far out into the northern hemisphere. The proposition of live classical music in the park — the hosts encourage audiences to be “sitting on a blanket in the shade of a tree” — is the main draw. To be certain, this isn’t quite the same as headbanging by the fjords or rocking out in the moorlands.
The first time I set my eyes on the icy River Vistula was from the cobbled streets of Old Warsaw, on a numb winter morning of 2012. The silver waterline rests like an embalmed scimitar, lain down beside the glowing crown of Warsaw’s National Stadium for football.
I was in Poland at the time for the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Warszawska Opera Kameralna (Warsaw Chamber Opera), the historic opera company that was founded in 1961 by Stefan Sutkowski. Led by a performance of Ja Kain (an Edward Pallasz composition, of a libretto by Joanna Kulmowa), the event was subdued, attended by the likes of Krzysztof Zanussi, among a selection of Poland’s well-known writers, musicians and cultural ambassadors.
Sutkowski, a man of stately presence, was a leading figure in the Polish music scene for six decades, and shared the celebrations for his record career as director of the Warsaw Chamber Opera. The visit did fetch me sufficient material in terms of literature and music anthologies of Polish music to last a lifetime. It also sowed the seed of a quest for classical music that is sure to grow for just as long.
Earlier this April 22nd, however, news came in of Sutkowsky breathing his last at the age of 85, and I was left reminiscing the quiet around the Łazienki Park more than the festivities. Sutkowsky played a vital role in the documentation of Polish music, personally commissioning books and research, while his insights led to the annual Mozart Festival in the early-1990s.
Shifting axes of reference
At the main crossroads directly in front of the Tower of Arts & Sciences, at the heart of the city, next to a sheltered stop for the city’s vintage tram lines, and just ahead of a subway passage into the underground metro station, stands a checkpoint installation, demarcating Warsaw’s geographic co-ordinates — 4,257 miles from New York, 4,807 miles from Seoul, 7,656 miles from Buenos Aires and 3,269 miles from New Delhi, and so on.
Whereas, the picture on Warsaw’s high streets is decidedly of univeral conformism. By and large, the workday crowds in the rail-cars overground, and in those below, are of neatly cut suits, en vogue overcoats of slender lapels and oversized buckles, pointed, flat-heeled footwear, slender briefcases and branded gear that would be easily distinguishable in any urban metropolis.
Preserving a lost identity
Earlier, the flight into Poland (after a stopover at Istanbul) presented its own revelation in the few minutes that the aircraft crossed over from the blazing white skies of one hemisphere into the pitch dark nighttime of the other side of the globe.
Peering out of the window, the night skies loomed ahead like storm clouds stretched across the horizon, as our plane steadily held its line directly into the eye of the darkness ahead. At the edge of the light, almost crashing against the coastline of black, a slender gilded line ran from one end to the other.
As we nosedived into Poland’s freezing clime, the chill that ran down my spine wasn’t about the shift in temperatures, but in the thought of voyaging from one world to another, entirely removed plane of human existence.
For round-eyed digicam-toting tourists in Old Warsaw — not far from the mayhem of Euro Cup fandom — a restored mid-century mini coroner’s carriage, drawn by a pair of chestnut ponies sporting thick, bushy, blonde tails and manes, allows for ample photo-op cheer.
A short walk away, the quaint old town square transforms on every weekend into a makeshift marketplace, bustling with fresh produce from farms across Warsaw’s vast outlying countryside. The airs of these village fairs aren’t easy to hold onto, even in the choicest of words.
The delights to take in are largely to do with the Polish womenfolk, pink in their cheeks and sturdy in their modest gaze, flashing their pearly whites from beneath layers of colourful headgear, handmade strands of beads and pendants, positively beaming over the heftiest, fleshiest cuts and slabs of meat.
At any point, the winds blowing over the fair bear the smells and sounds of hearty celebration, laced with the heady odour of herb-flavoured spirits such as of Zubrówka (Bison Grass vodka). At the stalls fronted by the oldest men, sporting faded berets and weathered coats from another era, I found an added eagerness to engage in cross-cultural conversations, whether I wished to make a purchase or not.
Eventually, I did pick up an assortment of pretty bottles, of slender necks, natural hues and uncommon dimensions — choosing from a range of flavoured vodkas, apart from blueberry essences, paprika pastes, green sauces and berry extracts — which allowed me to sneak in more than the allotted quantity of spirits, while checking my bags through customs, flying back to India. “So many bottles?” asked the lady. I replied brightly, “For cooking!”
A cultural revival
The everlasting testament to the power of the arts in Warsaw, however, still remains in a painting. In the years of salvaging the old town's remains, in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was the canvases of Warsaw’s buildings and squares painted by the Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto, court painter to the King of Poland in 1768, that became the blueprint for the Polish to rebuild their streets, avenues and palatial buildings from the debris and ashes left behind by the invading forces.
It is rare enough for a country with a history as ravaged and beleagured as Poland to rise from the ashes in the matter of half a century, and resurrect its past in all its splendour with an overwhleming and endearing spirit of preserving its own identity.
The humility that remains equivocally amongst the senior most and the younger Polish generations speaks for an astounding amount of courage to face up to, and evenly embrace the wrongs of the past. This uncommon manner of pride, is worlds apart from many other cultural entities not too far from the Polish borders.
The perception, remarkably, is still of an emerging cultural force. But that is the combined result of hard-fought integrity, and a deeply resolved purpose to gain recognition over prized cobblestones. The Poles marched into the new millennium with the intent of paving a well-defined long road into a future of uncertain promise.
It is an approach that spotlights every sphere of Polish culture, across the arts, literature and the sciences, with equanimity and a shared accordance of importance. Importantly, for a new generation, this approach ensures an solid foundation, to find its own and move ahead with the moral fortitude of an established cultural identity.
To that extent, Warsaw’s crowds are as mindful of the calm that prevails over Łazienki Royal Park for the rest of the year, as they are about all the history leading up to the music being played.
All the Chopin Concerts are free and open to all. For information on the celebrations visit en.chopin.warsawtour.pl. Also, the International Piano Festival will be held from July 17–28. Visit polandfestival.com
— Jaideep Sen