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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

was younger.

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

Rafal Kwiatkowski and Albert Tiu, Princeton University

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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