For conductor Grzegorz Nowak, home is wherever he and his wife happen to be. So pretty much anywhere, then? After all, Nowak, 62, has worked with ensembles all over the world, including (naming just a few) the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, of which he is Principal Associate Conductor.
His first home, however, was Poland. Born into a musical family in Poznań, he grew up playing the violin and organ. ‘There was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to be a musician,’ he says.
So far, straightforward. But this was during the communist regime, when censorship was at its height. A production of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, which Nowak was to conduct, was cancelled after only two weeks of rehearsals: the translator of the text was an outspoken critic of the communist regime. ‘I felt that I couldn’t be constrained like this artistically,’ says Nowak. Not long afterwards, he saw Bernstein and Ozawa conducting on Polish television. ‘I thought to myself, what are you doing here you young fool? You have to go and learn something from conductors like these two.’
That’s why he strived so hard for a permit to take up a scholarship in the USA, where he was able to study with his heroes Bernstein and Ozawa and assist Kurt Masur with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He soon made his name, and now only returns to Poland for occasional engagements. ‘When I was living in Poland I was told that musicians in American and London orchestras are able to sight-read like nobody else,’ he says. The reason became clear to him only once he was abroad: ‘In countries like Poland where the orchestras have more rehearsals, the musicians don’t tend to look at the music in advance. In America and London, they simply come prepared. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra will do more in one rehearsal than many orchestras on the continent will do in two weeks.’
Despite his wide-ranging tastes, Nowak is still committed to Polish music: he has recently recorded two CDs featuring works by Lutosławski, Szymanowski and Penderecki. One of his great loves is Chopin. ‘He wrote a lot of works that would take on traditional Polish folk forms but he made them his own. Now the whole world claims Chopin as its own,’ he says.
Nowak’s CD of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 – which he recorded live in concert in Warsaw with the legendary Argentine pianist Martha Argerich – is a particularly proud achievement. With good reason: the concert almost didn’t go ahead. ‘Argerich was fighting all night with her partner and then announced that there was no concert: she wasn’t coming,’ he remembers. This was to be Argerich’s first performance in Warsaw in years, and the audience had been eagerly looking forward to hearing her. ‘So I said, “Let’s both go on stage. If you feel like it then you can play a few notes, but you can stop whenever you want. I’ll make your excuses to the audience,”’ says Nowak. ‘So we go out, and she’s saying, “but I can stop at any point, right?” Then she plays like a goddess.’
Clearly, the result went down well. One Parisian critic even described the recording as ‘indispensable and un “must”‘. What could be higher praise than that?