“Do not sneeze at Blechacz!”

Teresa Toranska interviewed prof. Katarzyna Popowa-Zydroń (’Wysokie Obcasy‘, November 19, 2005.)

  • You were supposed to give up smoking.
  • Oh, no, stop, please! My son also told me yesterday: “Mom, you are a very important professor now, go to the hairdresser's, you should take care of yourself.”
  • You promised to give up smoking if Rafal won the Chopin Competition.
  • Me? Who did I promise that?!
  • Priest Andrzejczak - a friend of the Blechacz family. In the smoking room of the National Philharmonic Hall you were both smoking while waiting for the results of the Competition, and you promised that...
  • And has he given up smoking?
  • He is about to...
  • (laughter)
  • 30 years ago, in 1975, there were sports, hair pulled back and tied with a rubber band and a black sweater.
  • A tatty one. And large glasses. I thought I looked terribly avant-garde.
  • You would say: “The pianist's life may be nearly as interesting as the life of a loving wife. Provided that the latter does't disturb the former”".
  • What text are you quoting?
  • “If I had to give up anything, I'd die. The most important thing for me is to never get tired of life.” This is an excerpt from the interview carried out with you 30 years ago by Ms. Teresa Krzemień in the weekly “Culture”. You were a participant of the IX International Chopin Piano Competition.
  • Oh God! Did I say this? How stupid of me! I was euphoric after the second round, I felt like a star. I gave interviews and posed for pictures. I remember a painter said: “I need to draw your portrait, because you're one of the favourites”. I was in seventh heaven. What stupidity!
  • No, it's cool. “I know for sure that it's up to me what the life is going to be like. It's foolish to overestimate your abilities.I'd prefer to have small complexes rather than be complacent”.
  • Oh, no, stop it! Why did you dig that up?
  • That's why :“Here, Ms Popowa-Zydroń did not enter the finals of the Chopin Competition” - that's what Piotr Wierzbicki wrote about you - “she, who was the only thinking and intelligent pianist among the Polish women competitors, the one refusing to play entirely under the dictate of teachers”.
  • Then, in the third round of the Competition, I had flu, and after taking antibiotics I felt weak and miserable.
  • You fell from the fifth to tenth place.
  • I got honourable mention. And very well.
  • What was good about it?
  • It was a very good move on the part of the Providence. If I had got a higher position I would have had more concert proposals and a concert pianist career would have been more tempting to me.
  • Wait a minute, didn't you want to be a pianist?
  • I did, indeed , but I also wanted to do many other things. I was simply interested in life. I liked the company, going to the cinema and the theatre, reading books. Sitting at the instrument for hours in solitude seemed quite a tiresome business to me. Besides, I also wanted to have a family, children.
  • It's impossible to combine all those things.
  • Well, it's a fine art. Apparently men are more likely to be able to arrange all that. But for women it is extremely difficult. No husband likes to have a wife touring around the world. You would have to look for a specific one.
  • Like the one Halina Czerny-Stefańska had?
  • Yeah. Ludwik Stefanski was a great man and a fantastic professor. I performed a little, yes, but taking your suitcases and travelling to places where nobody knows you, going on stage, to hundreds of unknown people who came just to evaluate your playing wasn't pleasant at all. No, it wasn't exciting. You can't go out to visit the city the day before, because you might get tired or soaked in the rain. In the evening, sitting alone in a hotel you wonder where to go for dinner as not to be bothered by people, it's awful.
  • One should have a father.
  • Rafal does. His dad really cares about him. I'm very happy that this boy likes playing for people, he loves to have a concert hall full of people.
  • What does one like, the applause?
  • Perhaps the silence that makes you hold your breath when you need to withstand a fermata or a pause. Or, maybe, the silence, when you have finished playing and the audience hasn't yet gone out of trance, not yet applauding, still waiting, bewildered, until the last note resounds. I was at a concert of Grigory Sokolov in Duszniki Zdrój. He finished playing and after this fantastic, really wonderful performance he stood up and began to bow to the audience, still a little absent. I felt stupid. What a bizarre ritual, I thought, we are sitting sprawled out in our chairs, and the artist keeps bowing. For God's sake, we should stand up and bow to him, and not vice versa. Rafał, when not performing for a long time will be climbing the wall with impatience to appear again. I keep telling him: you can make people happy, this is your life task, your mission, you must do everything to fulfill this mission.
    And he does.
    And it's wonderful. My grandmother used to say: there are trees that bear fruit, and those that are only beautiful.
  • And how about you?
  • I have known for a long time that the world will do very well without my playing but my children won't without their mother.
  • There are two of them?
  • My daughter is 25 and my son 23. He is about to finish his study at the Warsaw School of Economics, and my daughter the Bulgarian philology in Poznań. I'm proud of them. At present I prefer to perform in Gdansk. Some people believe that it is most difficult to play ‘at home’ but I do not find it true about myself. I know my audience, I have personal contacts with the people. A bunch of good sympathetic friends come to listen. And even when an unfriendly listener comes too, I will please him when he hears me touch a wrong key by mistake! It was great fun to play with other members of the family in my home in Sofia. What a wonderful time we had on Sundays! Of course, TV did not exist then. My father would take out his violin, my Mom would open her albums with songs by Schumann, Schubert and Brahms. I used to accompany her - I have always loved playing with singers. My sister used to play the flute, my mother had a beautiful voice...
  • She was an English teacher by profession.
  • She worked for a news agency at the time translating telegrams. She worked under terrible stress because one wrong word could bring about disastrous consequences. She didn't belong to the communist party - none of my family did and they had an ‘incorrect’ past record with the communist government. My grandfather was a member of the Bulgarian Parliament before the war, he belonged to the peasant party - I don't know its Polish name.
  • Bulgarian Agrarian National Union was a very strong party in opposition, whose head, Nikola Petkov was executed in 1947.
  • My grandfather wasn't a peasant but he had a land property, a piece of a mountain up in the Rhodopes. My grandfather's brother, a journalist, was executed by the people's court for antibolshevism. He has been rehabilitated recently. Before the war, my father studied at the Technical University in Germany, and my mother studied in England for a year and then at an American college in Sophia. The head of the college was accused of spying after the war, ugh, terrible. So, Sunday was a celebration. Sometimes my aunts came round to join us. One of them had studied piano in Paris for two years. The other, who had studied playing the piano in Berlin, was an excellent teacher. When I finished primary music school, one evening my mother came to my bedside and said: “You won't become a pianist; you're too lazy and, above all, this is not a profession for you.” I gasped for air, because I was really gifted for music, I had won several nationwide piano contests for young talents and the next day I was to take an entrance exam to secondary music school. “This profession”, “ my mother explained to me, “is not for women, and in general with no future”.
    My mother had a very strong personality. She treated me like her father had treated her. She wanted to be a singer, but her father considered this profession inappropriate for a young girl from a good family. He believed that a young lady should not appear on stage to entertain people. What she actually needed, according to him, was a decent job. The next day, instead of going to the music school, I went to a labourers' camp, because in those days Bulgarian children used to be sent to collect tomatoes. I went to high school with German as the leading language. The first year I was happy, I did not have to practice playing the piano. In the second year, I felt a little worse because in high school I had to spend a lot of time studying so as not to appear the worst, and in my third year I started writing poems. Probably, I had to find a way of expression for my fantasies.
  • Didn't you play at all?
  • No. To be honest, I was too lazy.
  • Nothing at all?
  • Perhaps I tried it two or three times, but my fingers “went out of practice” and I could barely produce some random sounds, so I soon got discouraged. I was determined to go to medical school to study medicine. And soon after I came to Poland...
  • How did it happen that you came here?
  • I married Mr. Zydroń.
  • A professor at the Academy of Arts in Poznań.
  • Then a lecturer. My mother was devastated. She was shocked with the age difference between us.
  • It was merely 12 years.
  • Then it seemed quite a lot. I was 18 and he 30. It was pure madness! I was really impressed by him. A Bohemian! And me, a young lady from a good middle-class home. His life appeared so exotic to me. Do you know how long I had really known him then?
  • A month?
  • Half a month. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating. He came to Bulgaria for a holiday in August - once. For Christmas - the second time. He knelt down and told my mom that he wanted to marry me. Mom knew that I would act as I wished. I was very childish but rebellious and very independent. So my parents decided that it would be better if I married him with their consent than without. I was extremely fortunate, that's all. My husband turned out to be a man of outstanding stature. Apparently, God had me in his care. When I came to Poznań I couldn't speak a single word in Polish.
  • Did you communicate in German?
  • No, Russian. But I quickly learnt Polish as I am linguistically skilled.
  • You speak without a trace of a foreign accent.
  • I feel to be a Pole. Do you know what I found most shocking after arrival in Poland? That so few women went out to work, that most of them stayed at home. In my family in Bulgaria all women used to work. I started thinking what to do. Medicine combined with my husband's artistic profession seemed too difficult. So what else? Maybe music? I wouldn't have to bother with the language, I would follow a career path with the least effort on my part. It was perhaps in September 1971 when I decided to refresh my piano skills. Antek bought me a piano; it was a Drygas, a brand from Poznań. Then he bought me a huge Bechstein. After a five-year break I started to revise my repertoire from primary school. My friends arranged a hearing with Aleksandra Utrecht for me. She was a well- known pianist then. I played Ballade in A flat major by Chopin. In primary school I was really very advanced. And she said: “The way you play is not so good, but it is obvious that you must play”. I graduated from high music school on extramural basis and entered the Academy of Music hands down. I was doing well, so I thought that if I played and received best marks without much effort, I'd put a little more work into it and see what happens. The more you get, the more you want. Ii was fun to arrange my life on my own. I was madly in love with my husband, but I still remained very independent.
  • Did he support you?
  • Antek? Well, it's hard to say. We lived in an old Art Nouveau building, in one huge room of about 60 square metres and five metres high. He used to paint his pictures in one part of the room while in the other I played for hours. I wanted to be more than just a student that plays well. I suppose that while planning to marry me Antek failed to take my ambitions into account. So did I.
  • Was he annoyed with you playing the piano?
  • No, I think not. But playing the piano and in general, practising playing an instrument requires much devotion. You have to create your individual, isolated world. One instinctively seeks solitude, although sometimes it is really depressing. The feeling of inner loneliness is probably inherent in an artistic profession.
  • A painter also needs solitude.
  • So I left for Gdansk. We parted after three years. He is dead now. We were close friends till his last days. He would support me with his advice and his presence.
  • Why Gdańsk?
  • Because of Professor Zbigniew Śliwiński. He lived in Gdańsk and was a teacher of considerable fame. After two years he suggested that I should take part in the national piano competition. Why not? I thought I'd go and see how I'd appear comparing to the others. It turned out that I performed quite well. I played Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Szymanowski and some Chopin. Twelve players were selected to become Polish qualifiers for the International Chopin Piano Competition. The repertoire of Chopin music was virtually unknown to me. I left for my postgraduate studies in Vienna. I stayed at the Vienna Conservatory all days long and practiced as hard as never before in my life. In the following five months I prepared the repertoire for the Competition. Complete madness.
  • Under whose guidance?
  • Professor Alexander Jenner. I came back to take part in the competition preliminaries and eventually six pianists were selected for the Competition. Those days Polish team wasn't as large as it is now.
  • There was Krystian Zimerman and five girls.
  • I got high ratings and with a heavy heart I realised that it's not a tea party; whether I want it or not I must compete in the Competition.
  • Why ‘with heavy heart’?
  • I'd rather not say.
  • Just one sentence.
  • Let's play a game.
  • Oh! It is to do with your second husband, also an artist, isn't it?
  • One, two, three... I thought: what's the problem? I'll drop out after the first round. Oh, no! It would be a shame, maybe after the second. You know (laughter), I was supposed just to be cool, but it turned out that - oh! - that I was gifted. My name was mentioned in newspapers and a scandal broke. The Chopin Society received loads of letters full of indignation at the fact that the Polish team had to be supported by a Russian woman. What an offence!
  • Why ‘a Russian woman’?
  • Because of my surname. It was concluded that Popowa must be Russsian. I had to explain officially that I came from Bulgaria and I had acquired Polish citizenship three years earlier.
  • Did it help?
  • Well, a little. Anyway, the anonymous audience still preferred ‘true born Poles’ (laughter). I prepared a list of things one shouldn't do so as to avoid undesirable effects.
  • And now?
  • Oh, yes. For Rafał.
  • So that he could avoid your mistakes?
  • First, not to live in a hotel. Nobody knew where he was living. Just like Zimerman the other day. He was also hiding and came to the Philharmonic Hall only for his performances. The other participants circulated between the Forum Hotel, the Academy of Music (in Okólnik), where they could practice the piano and the Philharmonic Hall. They soon got distracted, lacking sleep as their phones were ringing at night.
  • What phones?
  • I don't know, silent calls, presumably some mischievous callers. Besides, no journalists. No publicity. No interviews. Full concentration. And care about health - neither he nor any of us, the ones who accompanied him, were allowed to catch a cold or flu. When someone sneezed at me, I ran away - ‘a shoo’. I got infected by my mother when I was a contestant of the Competition. She came from hot, sunny Sophia to face the cold and rainy weather in Poland and eventually she fell ill. She passed the virus on to me. Well, it didn't matter. I knew that Rafał was likely to win the competition. If he wished to.
  • Is it possible that he didn't wish to?
  • Oh, no, that's not the point. He didn't consider it at all. I was wondering whether and how to tell him that the desire to win is essential. I decided I'd tell him before the first round. I wanted him to know that the award was within his grasp. I told him that if he wanted, he could win the Competition. He was a bit astonished to hear this. Apparently, my words made an impression on him. He was probably afraid of such thoughts, he might have suppressed them. He told his father how I estimated his chances of success. I often used to tell him: “Don't think about winning. These thoughts are no good. Praying to win is as if you prayed for someone else to lose. One shouldn't play against the other”.
  • Did you show him your picture with Zimerman?
  • The one with the Polish team from the Competition in 1975? I can't remember. I showed it to some of my students. They were able to reognize me without any difficulty (laughter).
  • Why shouldn't they?
  • I was awfully skinny. Even my daughter was surprised when she saw the skirt I was wearing for the Competition - long, black, with colorful, flowery pattern, made of velvet suitable rather for a pillow case. She couldn't fit into it. And with Rafał, we only talked about how beautifully he was supposed to play. Exactly as we had agreed before - because he knew everything, he didn't have any weak points. I said: “You should always do your best, no matter whether it's a laureates' concert or a concert for children. Chopin's music can't be played half-heartedly. You mustn't do that to him.”
  • Because he is looking?
  • Certainly. And especially at Rafał.