Pianist Janina Fialkowska plays up magic of live performance


When Janina Fialkowska counts her blessings, they’re not limited to gratitude for still being able to play Chopin to perfection 12 years after she temporarily lost the use of her left arm because of a cancerous tumour.

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With a laugh, the renowned Montreal-born musician said she considers herself lucky being a classical pianist who is still touring.

“Our world is diminishing,” she said. “They’re looking at YouTube and, really, that is not the real thing. Live performance is the real thing.”

The good news, Fialkowska said from her home in Germany, is that there is no shortage of classical pianists in the world today.

“There are millions of Chinese pianists and lots more Soviet Bloc pianists coming to the West, which they didn’t in my day, because they weren’t allowed out,” said Fialkowska, who will be 65 on May 7.

“There are thousands of wonderful pianists coming from eastern countries, but everyone is looking for a job. Paradoxically, and sadly, there are fewer concerts to be had for everybody.”

Fialkowska is performing plenty herself during her year-long 65th birthday celebration tour around the world, including six concerts in British Columbia this month.

Her Vancouver Island performances begin with an all-Chopin program at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Port Theatre in Nanaimo, 125 Front St. It’s a fundraiser for the Nanaimo Conservatory of Music.

Fialkowska will conduct a master class on Monday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Nanaimo Conservatory of Music, 375 Selby St. Observer tickets ($10 donation suggested) are available by calling 250-754-4611.

She will perform at Art Spring on Salt Spring Island at 7:30 p.m. on March 15, and at Victoria Conservatory of Music’s Alix Goolden Performance Hall at 7:30 p.m. on March 17, with a master class the next day.

Highlights include Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, Op. 61; Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52; Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Op. 54; Prélude in D-flat major, Op. 28, No. 15 and Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20.

The B.C. leg of Fialkowska’s Canadian tour, which began in Edmonton on Wednesday, not long after she returned from Japan and Ireland, also includes concerts in Squamish and Sechelt, and an invitation-only concert at CBC Vancouver’s Studio 1 to be filmed on March 21.

Fialkowska’s professional career was launched in 1974 by pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who said he had found “a born Chopin interpreter” when she triumphed at the first piano competition held in Rubinstein’s name.

She has since performed with some of the world’s greatest symphony orchestras, including those in Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Montreal and Vancouver, and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw, the BBC Symphony and the London Philharmonic.

After an aggressive tumour in her left arm was discovered in 2002, Fialkowska underwent radiation and experimental surgery that transplanted muscle from her back to her shoulder.

After rehabilitation and 18 months of playing single-handed repertoire, including Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand adapted for the right, she resumed playing two-handed.

Fialkowska’s latest “comeback” world tour began in January with the fifth edition of her International Piano Academy in Marktoberdorf, Germany, where she also taught and showcased new young talent.

“I keep telling everyone I came back in 2004 and here it is 12 years later. Unfortunately, for the world, we go on forever,” she said, laughing, and noted many of the world’s greatest have performed into their 80s.

“With classical pianists, it’s a very healthy life in a funny way. Obviously, we can’t drink or take drugs. Our minds have to be sharp. We do tend to have longevity. It must be good exercise or something.”

Fialkowska said coming to Vancouver Island is particularly special because she has roots here.

Her grandfather, Dr. John Todd — Canada’s first professor of parasitology, who discovered that the tsetse fly is the carrier of sleeping sickness — was born in Victoria, and his brother Albert Todd was the city’s mayor from 1917 to 1919.

Fialkowska, who is the cousin of actor Christopher Plummer, is also related to former federal cabinet minister David Anderson.

Although she has travelled to the West Coast for decades, it wasn’t until the 1990s that she discovered the Gulf Islands, which she now incorporates into her schedule.

“It’s become a tradition, and my husband [Harry Oesterle] started coming with me to do the driving,” she said.

“Where do you get to play for such informed audiences in such a beautiful place? It could almost be a holiday.”


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