Janet LopinskiThe clock is ticking down to the 18th International Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw in October 2020, and the Fifth Canadian Chopin Piano Competition and Festival – August 23 to 29, 2019 at the Royal Conservatory of Music – offers an interesting stepping stone on one path to the Warsaw event. Presented by the Canadian Chopin Society, the Festival part of the event celebrates Chopin’s legacy with a series of concerts, workshops and performance classes, highlighted by a solo recital by Polish-Canadian pianist Krzysztof Jablonski, third-place laureate at the 11th Chopin Piano Competition in 1985.

But the cornerstone of the week is the Competition, divided into Junior and Senior sections. The top three Senior finishers will travel to Warsaw in the fall of 2020, guaranteed a spot in the 18th Chopin Piano Competition. Second-prize winner Tony Yike Yang, in the Fourth Canadian Competition (2014), became the youngest laureate (at age 16) in the history of the International Chopin Competition in 2015, winning the Fifth Prize. (By coincidence, Yang’s teacher, Vietnamese-Canadian DangThai Son, had finished first in the 1980 International Competition.) Now pursuing a dual degree in economics and piano performance through the Harvard University-New England Conservatory of Music Joint-Degree Program, Yang’s recent accolades include being awarded the Jury Discretionary Award at the 15th Van Cliburn International Competition in 2017, where (at 18) he was the youngest competitor.

To learn more about the Chopin Competition and Festival I corresponded with Janet Lopinski, senior director of academic programs at The Royal Conservatory, and founder and artistic director of the Canadian Chopin Society. She was appointed artistic director of the Canadian Chopin Competition in 2008. By 2010, the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth, a year that saw the presentation of the Competition Winners Concert in Koerner Hall, it was clear that there was an appetite for a permanent Chopin Society. With strong support of the Polish Canadian community, particularly the Maximilian Kolbe Foundation, the Canadian Chopin Society (CCS) was incorporated as a not-for-profit entity in 2012. Its mission: “to celebrate the legacy of Fryderyk Chopin by promoting his music while nurturing the development of young artists.”

A full-blown Festival and Competition such as this one is presented every five years, in preparation for the prestigious International Fryderyk Chopin Competition, Lopinski informed me. In the years between, the Society presents concerts, workshops, lectures and masterclasses, and provides performance and scholarship opportunities for young Canadian pianists. Lopinski herself has performed as soloist and collaborative pianist, and has presented lectures, workshops and masterclasses across North America.

The relationship between the CCS and the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Poland has evolved over the past decade, Lopinski said. Since 2000, the cost for the top prize winners’ travel to Poland has been covered. “We have also made it a point to include Polish pianists on our jury,” she added. As well, Lopinski was invited to participate in the first Chopin Competitions Conference, organized by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute. “The success of Tony Yike Yang certainly brought great visibility for the CCS,” she said.

At that 2015 conference there were 15 Chopin Competitions from around the world represented. Lopinski credits the Chopin Foundation of the USA with being both an inspiration and a model for the Canadian event. Other competitions whose winners may be accepted directly to the Warsaw Preliminary Round include those based in Darmstadt, Moscow, Beijing and Tokyo.

The Chopin Piano Competition is open to talented Canadian pianists up to age 29 who wish to further their performance skills and in particular, their playing of the works of Fryderyk Chopin. Application deadline was May 31, several days after our summer issue went to press. More information on the event and its participants can be found at canadianchopinsociety.com. The Senior competitors will participate in Preliminary, Semi Final, and Final rounds, performing selected works by Chopin, and will be adjudicated by a panel of respected Chopin experts. All competition stages are open to the public. Preliminary rounds will be held in Mazzoleni Hall; the finals will take place in Koerner Hall with the finalists performing Chopin Concertos with the Tokai String Quartet.

Krzysztof Jablonski chairs the jury comprised of U of T piano pedagogue Midori Koga, South African native Anton Nel (a familiar face at Glenn Gould School masterclasses), Irish pianist John O’Conor (another GGS faculty member and masterclass participant), and Juilliard faculty member Golda Vainberg-Tatz.

Mazzoleni Hall will also be the site of three special events: “Insights” – an evening with Alan Walker, author of the acclaimed biography, Fryderyk Chopin: Life and Times; “Conversations” – an evening with the competition jury, providing the opportunity to hear their thoughts on music-making, competitions, and careers in music; and “Portraits” – a glimpse into three stages of Chopin’s life through letters and music.

“Once the applications for the competition have been received, and the schedule finalized we will also be announcing additional masterclasses and performance showcases, to provide opportunities for pianists not entered in the competition to be a part of the Festival,” Lopinski said. “Please check our website (canadianchopinsociety.com) after June 10 for these updates,” she added.

I asked what she considered her proudest achievement as artistic director and she told me that founding the CCS and providing leadership for its development has “brought the opportunity to combine several things that are very important to me: my Polish heritage, my love for music, and my commitment to music education. . . Certainly witnessing the success of Tony Yike Yang at the International Competition in 2015, and observing his transition from student to young artist has been incredibly gratifying and inspiring.” 

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

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