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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on November 24, 1999. All rights reserved.
At Age 21, Tough Love & Lots of Practice
Polish cellist Rafal Kwiatkowski, now 21, has been
winning first prizes in musical competitions since he was 10. He has
triumphed in Vina del Mar, Chile, and Ljubljana, Slovenia; in Warsaw,
Poland, and in New York City. His most recent achievement was a first
prize in the 1999 Young Concert Artists International Auditions in
New York. Has he ever entered a contest where he did not win a first
prize? Yes, he says, as if accomplishment can not be judged by first
prizes alone. "I won a second prize in Cincinnati at the American
String Teachers Association. I was 15 and the age limit for
was 19. I was very happy. I didn’t expect to get anything. It was
a big thing for me."
In New York last week, Kwiatkowski was taking advantage of one of
the perks offered a Young Concert Artists International Auditions
winner, a debut at New York’s 92d Street "Y." He repeats his
"Y" program at Richardson Auditorium on Thursday, December
2, accompanied by pianist Albert Tiu. The Richardson appearance is
an award of the Princeton University Concerts Prize (PUCP), given
for the first time this year. Made possible by an anonymous donor,
the PUCP provides a $1,000 cash prize and an engagement in the
University Concert Series. The PUCP is earmarked for a first prize
winner in the international auditions sponsored by Young Concert
Young Concert Artists (YCA) is a non-profit organization designed
to launch the careers of young artists. YCA provides management,
engagements, recordings, publicity, and individual career guidance
for a minimum of three years for its winners. The current roster of
YCA includes two dozen young musicians; eight of them are violinists,
and five are pianists. The rest sing or compose, or play cello,
marimba, viola, flute, or harp. Using the criteria of virtuosity,
musicianship, and artistic individuality, the YCA jury may select
multiple winners, or none. In 1999 seven first prize winners were
selected. Among the noted musicians who began their careers with YCA
are Emanual Ax, Richard Goode, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Carter Brey, Dawn
Upshaw, and the Tokyo String Quartet.
Susan Wadsworth, who founded YCA in 1961, continues
to play a hands-on role in the organization. She tracked down Albert
Tiu as a pianist for Kwiatkowski’s recitals. She also worked with
Kwiatkowski on programming the debut concert, confirming some of his
choices, and persuading him to alter others. Princeton listeners will
hear a sonata in the sophisticated "galant" style of the 18th
century by Francoeur — Wadsworth’s choice — (Kwiatkowski
proposed a sonata by Bach or Beethoven for this spot), Chopin and
De Falla pieces about which both agreed, and the Barber sonata (whose
length Wadsworth considered more appropriate than the longer
or Shostakovich pieces that Kwiatkowski was promoting). Kwiatkowski
learned the Francoeur and Barber pieces only within the last few
"I played all the pieces before with a pianist in Poland,"
Kwiatkowski says, just before his performance with Tiu. "The two
pianists have different personalities, and see the music differently.
I can’t say which is better. We have to respect personalities. I’m
very comfortable with both."
Kwiatkowski was born in 1978 in Warsaw, the only child of two
cellists. His mother plays in the National Philharmonic of Warsaw.
His father is with the Warsaw Opera. (The family name is pronounced
"kvyot-cuff-skee.") Rafal began his cello studies at age
Knowing the difficulties of teaching one’s own child, his parents
had him study with a teacher outside the family. However, his father
closely supervised Rafal’s practicing at the beginning.
"My father spent four years with me every day," Rafal
"listening to my playing, making remarks, and teaching me. He
did a good job. He set my fingers and hands to get a good sound."
Kwiatkowski attended one of Warsaw’s special public elementary schools
that stress music, and went on to attend the Mlynarski School, one
of Warsaw’s two public high schools with an extensive music component.
The school is named after the founder and conductor of the Warsaw
Philharmonic, which has been in existence since 1905.
At age 14 Kwiatkowski won the junior division of Poland’s Kazimierz
Wilkomirski National Competition for Young Cellists, which enabled
him to study at Towson State University in Maryland. "It was a
big thing in my life, to change my surroundings, and leave my friends
and parents," he says. "But I wanted to learn as much as I
could about playing the cello. I did it for the cello and for my
as musician. It was a great experience." At Towson, all his
centered on music; he studyied cello and chamber music, and played
in the university orchestra. "Cecylia Barozyk, my teacher in
woke me up to music," says Kwiatkowski. "Before, I didn’t
understand too much."
Most difficult, he says, was the English language. "I was the
only Polish person, and it was hard to understand. Also, I was the
youngest person; the average age was about 20. Later I had lots of
friends in Towson. People were nice to me. It’s a good
Barozyk treated her young student with tough love. "I lived with
my teacher in her house," Kwiatkowski says. "I was 15. It
was as if I had another parent during this time. She emigrated from
Poland about 20 years ago. She didn’t want to speak Polish with me,
so I could learn more English. At the beginning I was angry. She
she didn’t understand if I spoke Polish."
Kwiatkowski also had re-entry problems when he returned to Poland.
"It was difficult to return," he says. "I had to get used
to my friends. They had changed." Still, he says the stay in
came at a convenient time, just before high school, so there was
disruption of his schooling. Kwiatkowski entered the Wilkomirski
once again, this time in the 15 to 17 age group, and once again, he
won. "The second time I didn’t go to Towson," he says,
I didn’t want to interrupt my studies again."
Kwiatkowski’s path to New York as a Young Concert Artists
auditions winner put him in competition with 512 applicants from 43
countries. He was one of two winners in the European branch of the
competition, held in Leipzig, Germany, which attracted over 100
from 29 countries. Air transportation and housing in New York were
among the awards for the Europeans.
At the moment Kwiatkowski juggles the concert performances scheduled
by YCA with attending Warsaw’s Chopin Academy of Music, where he
with Andrzej Orkisz. "I will stay in the United States till
7, since my last concert for Young Concert Artists is on December
6. It’s a great thing that Young Concert Artists takes care of me.
But I have to return to Warsaw to study." Kwiatkowski has already
learned how to cope with balancing performing and studies in Poland.
"When I have concerts in Poland, and have to go to another city,
it’s disturbing to my studies. To get through I study a lot for exams
at the end of the semester."
Kwiatkowski is in his second year at the Academy, on a scholarship
awarded by the Polish Ministry of Culture. He is enrolled in a special
program for the gifted that keeps his general studies to a minimum.
Still, he faces examinations in January and June on the history of
art and on English as a language. "I don’t want to finish too
early. I would like to remain in the hands of my teacher. It’s good
for someone to hear me. Also, if I finish too soon the army will get
Poland’s new capitalism and democracy do not necessarily bring
to performing artists, Kwiatkowski says. "In recent years Poland
has become international, and there are no longer empty shops. Some
people are really rich, but life is expensive. It’s really hard for
musicians, harder than during communism. Under communism there was
more attention to culture than now. We musicians don’t produce
The country doesn’t need us."
Yet Kwiatkowski pursues his music. He prefers chamber
music to the big virtuoso pieces for solo cello. "Chamber music
is the heart of music," he says. The six Bach suites for
cello occupy a special place for Kwiatkowski. These high points of
the cello literature strike cellists with terror until they grow into
the pieces. "They’re in a different class from other cello
Kwiatkowski says. "It’s the greatest music for cello solo."
Kwiatkowski has already exposed himself to the suites. The second
and fifth are his favorites, and he played the first suite when he
Kwiatkowski’s musical horizons are wide. "Elegance," he points
out, "is not always the goal. Shostakovich, which has so much
energy, doesn’t have to be beautiful; it must be violent."
has recorded the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 with the Polish Radio
and Television Symphony Orchestra. In September he recorded the
cello concerto with the same orchestra. "I was happy because it
was music I wanted to record. I like this concerto very much; it’s
close to my heart. I like romantic music, and this is the most
cello concerto written."
Recording has no disadvantage compared to live performance, in
view. "I like to record," he says. "What I like is that
we can play the piece as many times as we want to get what we want.
Sometimes when you listen to a live performance and a recording, the
piece has a different life. But I put in the same emotion when I
and when I play." Kwiatkowski asks if I mind waiting while he
looks up a word in his dictionary. When he returns, he says
"I never feel impassive or indifferent at a recording
I am impressed with the refinement of his choice of words. Because
of his serviceable vocabulary and his solid sense of sentence
our conversation has no linguistic dead ends. If he keeps that
handy, he is within range of reaching in English the subtlety that
he must have when he uses Polish.
With various other interests, it is not clear how high a priority
the English language is for Kwiatkowski. He likes to attend concerts.
"I can learn a lot from listening to others," he says. When
he’s not involved in music, nature attracts him. "I like cycling
and walking," he says. "I have a very nice girlfriend,"
he adds, referring to pianist Justyna Stecko, a fellow student at
the Chopin Academy. The two started playing music together this year,
and plan to perform together in the Shostakovich piano trio.
Then practicing cello takes time, and so does preparing for still
more competitions. Kwiatkowski finds virtue in readying musical
for competition. "Competitions are good for motivating you to
work," he says. "You have to select a program, and prepare
it well. Competitions are good for learning new pieces. Technique
is basic, but beyond this, good music must be made. You have to
something. So why not practice for the competition."
— Elaine Strauss
Concerts , Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Program includes
works by Chopin, Barber, de Falla, and Francoeur. $19 to $29; $2
Thursday, December 2, 8 p.m.
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