The 2010 Paderewski Festival came to a triumphant end on Saturday evening as master pianist Jonathan Plowright came out on stage of the grand ballroom at the Paso Robles Inn to play a challenging and deeply satisfying program. This was a gala evening in every sense, since every seat was filled, (with several rows reserved for distinguished guests) and for any latecomers it was strictly standing room only. Festival Chairman Joel Peterson emphasized how special the Festival was this year for composers of Polish heritage. In 2010 we are celebrating the 150 anniversary of Paderewski’s birth and the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s. The Paderewski Festival is using this occasion to make all concerts in the 2010 Festival free to members of the public — a way of giving something back to the citizens of Paso Robles.
Ever the promoter of a good cause, Mr. Peterson showered praise on all the supporters and donors, singling out especially Epoch Estate Wines, Tablas Creek Vineyard, the Polish American Congress and Sherman Clay — actually he even got a plug in for super piano technician, Brian Alexander. All this praise was truly deserved, for we have seen huge growth this past year. The Festival, which lasted only four days last year has now added so many events it needed this year two extra days from November 4-5 to supplement the principal events occurring from November 10 to 14.
When it was finally time for Mr. Plowright to appear on stage, he prefaced his performance with some interesting remarks about what he was about to play. One half of his program contained works which were unfamiliar to the audience, while the other half favored us with some of Chopin’s greatest treasures, both large and small. He had researched his opening work, Paderewski’s Miscellanea, Op. 16, trying to discover whether the composer had ever performed the seven works in the opus as a set. He found no evidence that he had, and concluded that most probably they were not intended as an integral suite. Therefore, this was going to be a very unusual opportunity for us to hear the works played one after the other as a suite.
The first piece, Legende No. 1, began with a tender schmaltzy dreaminess, but then surprised us by working up to a violent frenzy in its middle section. The second piece, Melodie, after a lovely plaintive cantabile also worked up into a bit of agitated frenzy. After a dazzling set of variations, we came to the much beloved Nocturne in B-flat Major (performed several times by contestants in the Youth Competition), and it received a lovingly expressive (and very personal) performance with a gorgeous super soft ending. Number 5, Legende No. 2, was in many ways the most powerful and exciting work in the set, and Mr. Plowright gave us a totally convincing performance. After a super charming Un Moment musical, he ended the group with a Menuet (not the famous one) in which he demonstrated his lovely controlled elegance in passages featuring delicious ornaments and quiet trills.
The second work on the program was “Ten Variations on a Prelude by Chopin, Op. 22” by Ferrucio Busoni. Using the same Chopin C minor Prelude, Rachmaninoff had also composed a set a variations. However, listening to Rachmaninoff’s work, you are always aware that the variations are never as beautiful as the original theme. As Plowright performed the Busoni set, we were taken into another world of extraordinary imagination where the theme kept alternating between radical departures from the original and teasing hints causing us never to be sure from one moment to the next where we were heading. This was a powerful performance where Mr. Plowright was our tour guide over some slippery and dangerous paths, but oh, was it ever exciting. This was a performance you wanted to hear again and again.
After intermission, Mr. Plowright treated us to two of Chopin’s greatest masterworks, the Fantasie in F minor, Op. 49, and the Barcarolle, Op. 60. These were larger than life performances ― I can’t imagine Chopin ever having the energy and stamina to give us performances of this stature, for it just wasn’t in his nature. In between the two blockbusters, Mr. Plowright gave us two delicious Nocturnes, the B major, No. 3 (one that is much more difficult than it sounds) and the Nocturne in C-sharp minor. Op.posth. These were lovely performances with delicate nuances and powerful expressive qualities. They were beautiful!
After a rousing standing ovation, we were rewarded with one encore, Secreto, by Mompou, a quiet mysterious piece that stays for a brief while and then evaporates off into the ether. It was lovely.