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Pianist brings 20th-century Jewish music to the world

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Daniel Wnukowski (Claudia Zadory photo)

Canadian concert pianist Daniel Wnukowski has recorded music composed by Walter Arlen, a 97-year-old Holocaust survivor from Vienna who’s been living in Los Angeles for nearly 70 years.

Wnukowski performed some of Arlen’s compositions at a 2017 concert at the Austrian Parliament, in remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust. “It was an incredibly moving experience,” he said.

Wnukowski was in Toronto recently, playing a program of mazurkas written by Frédéric Chopin and several Jewish composers, at a concert at ZoomerPlex that was broadcast on a local radio station.

Wnukowski began exploring music written by 20th-century Jewish composers to connect with his roots, he said. His grandfather, Stanley, who died in 2012 at 92, was a Holocaust survivor from Lublin, Poland.

He met Arlen, whose last name used to be Aptowitzer, in Vienna in 2013. Arlen was looking for a pianist and Wnukowski had been recommended. “We immediately hit it off. As soon as we went to a piano, I performed some of his works and did my best to capture the wistful nostalgia,” Wnukowski said.

Arlen is a composer of lieder, a style of German compositions that set poetry to music. “The song really captures the ability of the composer to express some of his deepest pain, sorrow, feelings of isolation, the incredibly anti-Semitic society that was growing even before Hitler came into power in 1933,” Wnukowski said.

He has recorded and edited Arlen’s complete piano works for the Austrian record label Gramola, which released two double CDs, Die Letzte Blaue and Wien, Du Allein.

At his Toronto concert, Wnukowski performed mazurkas by the Jewish composers Alexandre Tansman, Wladyslaw Szpilman, Karol Rathaus and Roman Ryterband for an ecstatic audience. Wnukowski said Chopin wrote 59 mazurkas, while Tansman comes in a close second with 36.

Along with Wnukowski’s activities as a performer – he plays at prestigious concert halls around the world – he heads an organization that will be bringing live classical music to remote communities in Canada.

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Born in Windsor, Ont., Wnukowski, 37, left Canada at the age of 15 to study internationally. Now he makes his home in Vienna. “Canada was always very supportive of my activities, whether in the form of private donors or the Canada Council for the Arts. I have received numerous grants from them over the years,” he said.

“There just comes a point in a person’s life where one feels the need to give back to the community that brought them up.”

Wnukowski has resurrected Piano Six, which took established pianists to outlying areas in Canada from 1994 to 2010. Picking up the torch again, Piano Six – Next Generation will be sending pianists to remote communities like Slave Lake, Alta., Fort St. John, B.C. and the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, starting in April.

“I feel when I come back to Canada that there are so many disadvantaged communities that have popped up over the years, in that they possibly had live music at one point and it’s no longer around,” Wnukowski said

“The six of us individually can go out all over the country and make a difference, make a long-term impact, so that these places can once against experience that spark, that live encounter with people who have dedicated their life and passion to making music.”

He said he’s heard that people from Attawapiskat are learning piano on YouTube. “What better way to ignite their passion and just give them a brotherly hug and inspire them to keep going,” he said.

A typical visit by a Piano Six musician lasts two to three days and could include a masterclass for music students, a workshop for piano teachers and a school or community concert. The new Piano Six will be using technology – video streaming of performances and social media – to maintain connections with members of the communities that are visited.

 

For more information, visit wnukowski.com and pianosix.com