Annual festival recalls renowned pianist, composer Ignacy Paderewski, whose imprint is still felt in Paso Robles

The Tribune - November 6, 2008

By Sarah Linn

He was a wild-haired rock star, a world-famous pianist and composer who sold out concerts from Paris to Los Angeles.

He appeared twice on the cover of Time magazine. He served as independent Poland’s first prime minister, befriended every American president from William McKinley to Franklin D. Roosevelt and hobnobbed with the crowned heads of Europe.

Yet most Central Coast residents would be pressed to pick Ignacy Jan Paderewski —musician, statesman, humanitarian — out of a crowd.

Paderewski (pronounced Pad-er-reff-skee) is the focus of a four-day festival this month in Paso Robles, the city where he lived on and off for a quarter century.

“He brought a lot of people and a lot of culture to Paso Robles,” said Joel Peterson, president of the festival’s Board of Directors.


International statesman


According to Marek Zebrowski, artistic director of Paderewski Fest, the man known as “the George Washington of Poland” left his mark on music and international politics.

Born in 1860 in what is now the Ukraine, Paderewski made his official debut as a pianist in Paris at age 28.

Soon the tall, thin musician with the mane of red hair was playing and touring nonstop. His first North American tour, which spanned more than 100 concerts in just four months, netted $100,000—an astounding sum for 1892.

Yet Paderewski abandoned his touring career completely during World War I to seek humanitarian aid for Poland and rally for Polish independence, Zebrowski said. Working with President Woodrow Wilson, he signed the Versailles Treaty in 1918 — restoring Polish sovereignty after more than 120 years under the control of Russia, Prussia and Austria.

“Because he was so well-positioned, he had enormous influence,” explained Zebrowski, director of USC’s Polish Music Center in Los Angeles. “He was incredibly generous, incredibly kind.”

In 1918, Paderewski became the first prime minister of independent Poland, as well as the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Poland’s representative to the League of Nations. Four years later, impoverished by his humanitarian efforts, he resigned from political office and resumed touring internationally.

“It was an incredible triumph for Paderewski,” Zebrowski said.


A love of California


As Europe and his native Poland underwent turbulent change, the pianist was carrying on a love affair with California.

Paderewski first arrived in Paso Robles in 1914, seeking hot springs to soothe his arthritic hands. He returned repeatedly over the next 25 years, eventually buying nearly 3,000 acres of farmland in Paso Robles and more than 2,600 acres for oil drilling in Santa Maria.

“This was for Paderewski just a paradise on Earth, a part of the country he admired and very much felt at home (in),” Zebrowski said. His book, “Paderewski in California,” will be published by USC’s Figueroa Press in 2009.

A dedicated gentleman farmer, Paderewski planted almond trees and zinfandel vines at two Paso Robles ranches. He traveled by private railroad car and spent his stays at a suite at the El Paso de Robles Hotel.

“In a little community (like Paso), it’s rare that you have someone with the stature that Paderewski had, not only as a musician but a statesman,” said Paso Robles Mayor Frank Mecham.

Paderewski’s legacy survives today in the form of Paderewski Fest, created in 1992. The festival, which took a hiatus after the 2003 San Simeon Earthquake, returned with a concert in 2006 and a larger event last year.

“It’s not just a music festival,” said Joel Peterson, whose grandmother, Virginia, was one of Paderewski Fest’s founders. “It’s a festival that celebrates his ties to Paso Robles.”


Four days of music


This year’s Paderewski Fest kicks off Nov. 13 with a concert con- by Moonlight Winds, a woodwind quintet based in Los Angeles.

On Nov. 14, Lithuanianborn concert pianist Rudolf Budginas will perform selections by Frederic Chopin, Franz Liszt and Paderewski himself.

“He was one of the greatest pianists of the beginning of the 20th century,” the Cuesta College music instructor said of Paderewski, known for his interpretation of Romantic composers.

“When he played, it seemed that everything was effortless and…very natural, as if the music was composed by him,” said Budginas. Paderewski purposely played slowly to let the piano’s tone ring out “like a voice,” he added.

Paderewski’s talent is also on display Nov. 15 with a screening of the 1937 film “Moonlight Sonata.” The pianist, starring as himself, gives a 20-minute concert on film.

Also that day, fans can check out Paderewski memorabilia including photographs, cufflinks and wooden grape bins. Christine Smith of North Carolina contributed much of the collection at Paso Robles’ City Hall, which includes items from Paso Robles Pioneer Museum and El Paso de Robles Historical Society.

Other festival highlights include a Polish Mass at St. Rose de Lima Catholic Church in Paso Robles on Nov. 16 and, the night before, a concert by 19-year-old Nikita Mndoyants, winner of the International Paderewski Piano Competition.

Paso Robles has its own Paderewski Young Pianists’ Competition, now in its second year.


A Polish nexus


Organizers, meanwhile, are working on forging bonds with Paderewski’s home country.

This summer, Paderewski Fest organizers visited Poland on a weeklong trip sponsored by the nation’s Adam Mickiewicz Institute. The six-person group, which included festival adviser Frank Mecham, visited Paderewski’s estate in the Tarnow district, met with the director of the Paderewski Institute at Jagiellonian University in Kraków and had tea with Poland’s first lady, Maria Kaczynska.

A delegation from Poland, which includes government officials from Tarnow, is scheduled to visit Paso Robles during Paderewski Fest.

On Nov. 14, they will join Paso officials in signing an agreement to establish cultural and business relations between the two regions. One plan would set up an overseas exchange program for winners of both Paderewski piano competitions.

“Our goal is to get Paderewski known,” said Peterson. “When you graduate from high school in Paso Robles, you should know who Paderewski is.”