Cannon concealed amid blossoms
Van Chopin Society pairs visiting Pomianowska troupe with eclectic local talent
As the Indiana Jones of Polish musical archaeology, Pomianowska has attracted a coterie of venturesome, multi-talented young performers who globe-trot with her. Six of them came to Vancouver for their latest outing: flautist Pawel Betley, accordionist Hubert Gizi, pianist Lukasz Mikolajczyk, drummer Patrycja Napierala, harmonica-player Gwidon Cybulski, and Pomianowska’s vocal-cum-suka disciple, Aleksandra Kauf.
Between them, using traditional instruments, they excavated half a dozen mazurkas and a handful of folk tunes. The earthy sound was a far cry from any prettified salon rendition – arguably, much closer to what might have inspired young Chopin 200 years ago on his countryside ramblings (though I wonder if anyone in the 19th century Duchy of Warsaw ever adorned an Oberka with such funky blues harp riffs). The Polonez dancers whirled apace, flaring their lavishly embroidered costumes.
But that was just Act One, the tame, Eurocentric half of the programme. After the intermission (wine and canapés courtesy of the Consulate), the Pomianowska safari ventured to lands where Chopin had never set foot – from Arabia to Siberia via Africa, Andalusia and China – with onstage assists by nearly a score dozens of local Vancouver artists from a rainbow of ethnicities.
No way, in V.O. blogspace, to detail all the pieces on the bill. But each of the soloists amply deserves an enthusiastic shout-out: Amirhossein Eslami Mirabadi (Iranian Ney flute), Curtis Andrews (African drums), Ivan Tucakov (flamenco guitar), Jerry DesVoignes (Mongolian throat singer), Kurai Blessing Mubaiwa (African dance), Maryam Soroushnasab (Persian setar, tar & robab), and Sharon Zhang (Chinese yangqin). Not to mention the whole string section of the Canada West Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Ken Hsieh.
Together they did us proud as a multi-cultural magnet city – all the more so considering how limited was their rehearsal time together. For each of the nine pieces, the modus operandi was the same. It would open with a series of solo alaps to introduce the textures and modalities of the musical tradition to be invoked. As more instruments join in, the prevailing gestalt comes into focus, but the amorphous melody still leaves us to wonder ‘Where is this all going?’
Whereupon the whole ensemble peals forth with recognizable gobs of Chopin’s Greatest Hits – waltzes, etudes, rondos, preludes – in exotic new incarnations. None of which might prove wholly convincing to classical music snobs, let alone purist exponents of the ethnic traditions evoked.
Nobody in the Vancouver Playhouse seemed fazed, however. Pomianowska has, after all, amply earned her stripes as an ethnomusicologist, with years of study worldwide. It’s a real eye-opener to watch her authoritatively perform the Chanson de L’Adieu on a Chinese erh hu.
Or, for that matter, to see DesVoignes simultaneously sing a tenor and a growling bass line in a Mongolianized rendition of the Rondo a la Krakowiak to the accompaniment of Cybulski’s Jew’s harp. And then to see the same Cybulski turn around and credibly take up the African balafon as dancer Mubaiwa frisked about the stage to the tune of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude.
But with all hands on deck for the rousing finale of “A Young Girl’s Wish” (Op. 74, no. 1), the musical odyssey returned full circle back to Poland. Just as Chopin himself willed his own exiled, revolutionary heart to be clandestinely interred back in Warsaw, in a pillar of the Holy Cross church. (It had to be smuggled in, pickled in cognac, right under the noses of the country’s 19th century Russian overlords).